"I'm not your dancing bear," Martin O'Malley said, laughing.
I was pestering O'Malley outside of a house where hundreds of people were waiting to hear him play banjo and guitar, trying to find out everything I could about a concert that was minutes away from happening.
If that sounds unreasonable, hear me out.
I couldn't go inside to hear O'Malley play Thursday night because I'm a reporter, and reporters weren't allowed at the show. And by "show," I mean campaign fundraiser; guests inside had paid for their ticket with contributions ranging from $25 to $1,000 to O'Malley's political action committee—the O'Say Can You See PAC. O'Malley has a leadership PAC because, among other reasons, O'Malley is kicking around a possible run for president. He hasn't officially announced yet but he's already fundraising, because that's what you do these days when you're running for president and need a gobsmacking amount of money to do it.
For O'Malley, playing music is kind of "his thing." He has been playing with his Celtic rock band O'Malley's March for decades. During his time as Maryland's governor, his music helped humanize him for voters who struggled to connect with their wonkish state leader. And Thursday night was a big performance: O'Malley's first since leaving office and since breaking his arm.
Many times, reporters get to go to stuff like this for free because of a broad Washington commitment to a transparent democracy. (I'm just kidding.) Sometimes campaigns let reporters into their fundraisers because they hope the media attention will help them get more donors. But on Thursday night, no dice.
I asked Lis Smith, O'Malley's spokeswoman, why reporters weren't allowed in, and she told me it was to make sure there was room (and the right mood) for the 400 people who had bought tickets. The event was being held at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood. And Makenzie Delmotte, the building's events coordinator, estimated at least 300 were there.
Space may have been at a premium, but, to my knowledge, I was one of only two reporters waiting outside. The second reporter showed up at the tail end of the festivities.
And never mind that the concert was hardly a secret. O'Malley's team livestreamed his performance on Meerkat—a new web application which lets users "tweet live video." (It's "a thing" now, as Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have also used it to livestream a speech or interviews with SXSW participants.)
But it's their event, and their rules, so I waited outside. Inside, the attendees were hosted by O'Malley's PAC's Young Leaders Council, who'd induced guests to shell out for an event billed as "a way for young people to get together to discuss policy and politics with the governor and grow our network by bringing friends and colleagues into the fold," according to the event invite.
But from where I was standing, little of that could be seen. All that was visible from 15th Street was a yellow mansion bedecked in 10 "Martin O'Malley" posters, the occasional flash of a camera, and the near-constant crowd on the second-story balcony overlooking Meridian Park. And if the crowd inside was excited about a would-be President Martin O'Malley, the enthusiasm, besides the occasional audible "woots" of encouragement, hadn't gone past those walls. "What's he running for?" one passerby asked me. "Isn't he Maryland?" asked another.
If that lack of recognition, combined with a lack of interest from the press in staking out his event, strikes you as a bad sign for an aspiring presidential candidate, you're not wrong. It's made all the more striking when you consider the status of Hillary Clinton, the soon-to-be candidate O'Malley would have to beat to get the nomination. Clinton makes news with a tweet, and when she goes to speak to an association of camp counselors, reporters write about that, too.
But, a confession: I came Thursday night knowing my chances of getting in were slim. I'd asked in the weeks leading up to the event if I would be allowed to watch, and I'd been told every time that it was closed to press. So while my chances were not quite upset-over-Clinton slim, O'Malley and I on Thursday night were both on quixotic quests.
And in the end, the unexpected occurred—for me. Taking pity on me standing in the cold, Smith asked O'Malley and his staff to pull around to where I was standing just shy of an hour before showtime. As he pulled his guitar and banjo out of the trunk (He carries his own instruments: "It looks very everyman," he says), he told me they'd be doing an "eclectic mix" of American folk tunes for a young group.
"I'm sensing young people are very zeroed in on the conversations that are happening nationally," O'Malley said curbside, holding two guitar cases and a duffel bag from the Democratic Governors Association. "And they're waiting for someone to give voice to a new perspective and the way they look at the world."
O'Malley kept talking politics when he got inside, making opening comments on national wages and his record as governor before playing "This Land Is Your Land" or Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Those initial comments did not, however, make the Meerkat stream. Maybe next time.
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Zach Cohen is a web producer for National Journal Hotline. Before joining National Journal in 2014, he interned at The Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today and PBS MediaShift and wrote about politics and government for New Voices. Zach was born and raised in New Jersey and got his bachelor's degree in international relations from American University, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Eagle, the school newspaper.