We Spent an Entirely Reasonable Evening Listening to John Delaney Be Sensible

The Maryland congressman and presidential candidate brought his civilized campaign to Politics and Prose Monday
We Spent an Entirely Reasonable Evening Listening to John Delaney Be Sensible
Photograph by Amanda Whiting.

The thing you really need to know about John Delaney—the Potomac congressman who spent over $3 million of his own money across just two races and last year announced his moonshot bid for the presidency—is that he is really the son of an electrician.

“I was meeting with the Winterset Democratic Club,” says Delaney, 55, of a recent trip to Iowa after less than three minutes speaking. “And the head of the Winterset Democratic Club was a union electrician. And my dad was a union electrician.” The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers features in the opening sentences of Delaney’s official website bio. And his electrician dad is introduced on page three of Delaney’s new book, which the 200 people crammed into folding chairs on Monday evening are ostensibly gathered to hear about (pages 1-2 focus on how John Delaney is really the grandson of a one-armed immigrant).

Donald Trump has been president for 514 days, and the conversation about who Democrats will run against him in 2020 is still basically an uncomfortable silence. John Delaney, a relatively unknown three-term congressman, has had the naked audacity to say he’s definitely in. While some in the audience at the DC bookstore Politics and Prose will bother to buy his book tonight, most are here to check out the real wares. A very famous person damaged this country, in their eyes, and now they’d like to be told why they should trust someone they hardly know to fix it.

The answer seems to have something to do with being the son of an electrician. This compulsive retelling is not necessarily John Delaney’s fault. We don’t simply elect politicians in this country. We pick a favorite story, usually one that can be summed in the space of a Secret Service codename. Obama was “Renegade.” Trump is “Mogul.” Delaney really is the son of an electrician. Now he stands in front of you in a baby blue shirt, a few feet away from his wife and youngest daughter, whose clothes look they were cut from the exact same baby blue bolt of cotton. Delaney really is the son of a lifetime IBEW member, but now his 10-year-old is wearing $200 Tory Burch leather sandals. John Delaney’s story is “Bootstraps”—an oldie but a goodie.

The congressman, who lives just a couple miles from the DC border, is talking to a hometown crowd tonight but not many constituents. His Maryland district stretches stretches from Montgomery Mall all the way to where the West Virginia border meets the Mason-Dixon line. There are two easily identifiable types in the crowd: 1) people who have heard of Delaney; 2) people who think I’ve known John for years! is a normal response to Hello. It’s a small-town candidate meet-and-greet, and it’s a Potomac PTA meeting. “He’s in a gerrymandered seat, you know,” I overhear one blonde mom tell another in a hushed tone usually reserved for gossip. Everyone is marking seats with handbags rather than sitting because I need to say hi to people.

The only declared candidate for president did not read from his book, as is traditional at book events, but rather described the book and what he would do as president while periodically reminding the crowd that this was a book event and not a night for politics. The gist is that our elected officials are trying to make us feel like we’re more divided than we really are. Delaney, on the other hand, is “a progressive businessman.” What does he stand for? Sensible solutions, bipartisanship, civility, and other ho-hum cornerstone notions of democracy.

Over the course of an hour Delaney, who has a terrifically even Rich Dad tan, mostly convincingly argues he’s just a Bruce Springsteen-loving Jersey boy at heart. The crowd laughs appreciatively at his jokes, which are absolutely a little funny. Someone loudly declares “Wow” when he tells of how, on the morning he took his first company public on the New York Stock Exchange, his eyes couldn’t help but dart across the Hudson River, to the IBEW whose scholarship program had helped put him through Columbia University. The button-downs, which came in to the store sticky with summer sweat grow uncomfortably cool in the air conditioning; women pull on the hems of their shift dresses.

Talking about who will end up their presidential nominee is agita-inducing among Democrats in Washington. Bernie Sanders, sure. Elizabeth Warren, maybe. Kamala Harris, long shot. There’s no apparent standout to bridge an emboldened left with the establishment who favored Hillary Clinton. Delaney, like Trump, has largely self-financed his assent through American politics, but that’s where similarities end. Delaney is the steady hand, the middle of the road. He’s the lefty who called his campaign trail memoir The Right Answer, an obscure allusion to a dusted-off JFK speech.

“I do think we need border security,” Delaney says when asked about ICE. ”But I don’t think they need to be a deportation service.” He suggests a system of national service, but “it doesn’t need to be mandatory.” Delaney is a Democrat but he’s not going to adopt Sanders’s platform. He really cares about the nuts and bolts. When Delaney is president, every week will be Infrastructure Week.

Despite abandoning re-election to Congress in favor of an aggressive campaign trail schedule (he’s done over 200 events so far), most people are still surprised to hear John Delaney is running for president. In my experience, knowing who Delaney is in the first place makes the idea feel even less plausible to some. But 200 people at a time, at small events like this one, Delaney is telling his story. After the Q&A session, people tell me he seems “very moral” and “very nice.”

“I like that he’s not a scumbag,” says an older woman in a floral jacket with three copies of Delaney’s book tucked under her arm. And maybe that’s where we’re at. People don’t need to be excited or electrified or inspired. They just don’t want to be embarrassed. For this crowd, the electrician’s son, with his warm thin-lipped smile and his promise to be reasonable, will suit just fine.

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Staff writer

Amanda joined Washingtonian in January 2016. She has written about Maryland brewery Flying Dog’s First Amendment fight, pored over Hillary Clinton’s emails, and come clean about owning too much stuff. She lives on H Street.