Likability: how to win friends, influence voters

ROGER SIMON 6

July 12, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Once upon a time, Kurt Schmoke had this funny idea that being mayor was about running the city. Today, he knows better.

That's because he can read that he is "too cool" and "too cerebral." That he is "detached." That he is "uninspiring." That he is "cold." That he is not sufficiently "likable."

And make no mistake: likability is a big factor in American politics. Michael Dukakis lost his race for president for a number of reasons, but likability was certainly one of them.

Dukakis was called Zorba the Clerk, the man who could eat one potato chip. And when you got right down to it, it was just much easier to like George Bush than it was Dukakis.

I am not sure where in their oaths of office public servants promised to be warm, exciting and emotional, but it must be in there someplace.

So I tried to think of a likable politician whom I could call.

I called Jody Landers. He is a two-term city councilman from the 3rd District with a Boy Scout demeanor, a past history of community activism and no (known) felony convictions.

He is now running for city comptroller. He has two Democratic primary opponents, who also might be extremely likable, but Landers has the endorsement of outgoing Comptroller Hyman Pressman, who, about to complete an astonishing seven terms, must know a thing or two about likability.

[Just in case you were wondering, some places have comptrollers and some places have controllers. They are the same job and are supposed to be pronounced the same way: con-troller. A lot of people in Maryland say comp-troller anyway, however. The spelling "comptroller" comes from an erroneous use of the French word compte, meaning account. I got all this out of a dictionary. Life in the city that reads can be endlessly fascinating.]

Comptroller, in any case, is not a job that excites. It is numbers. Finances. Audits. And all the candidates can be expected to say pretty much the same things: They have built a successful business or have served the public well, are honest, fiscally responsible and have an idea or two.

So you have to provide something more if you want to win. Something like likability.

"The whole intention of all these jobs is that you are trying to serve the public interest," Landers said, "and so that while it is not necessary to fawn over people, you have to enjoy working with people and give people a sense you can empathize with them."

So on the one hand Landers emphasizes ideas in his speeches like getting city-owned land back on the tax rolls: "We have a Fire Department repair garage and it's wonderful. We need it, but it sits right on the Inner Harbor. Right down the street is the Industrial Museum and right up street is the multimillion-dollar Harbor View Marina, and the Harbor Keys Condominium development is going right in there.

"So a Fire Department garage is not a very productive use of the land. Let's relocate the garage into a commercial area just five or six blocks away and let's lease or develop the property. If a $10 million development went in, that would mean $236,000 per year in property taxes to the city. You've got to involve the community, of course. You just don't want to plunk something down, but there is tremendous potential for making better use of city-owned land."

Which is swell as ideas go. But on the other hand, Landers is always careful to connect with his audience. He emphasizes that he is a lifelong resident of the city. That he has three children. That they all go to public schools and so he knows the problems and accomplishments of the city school system. He says things like he has a "13-year-old going on 25" and people who have teen-agers can laugh and appreciate that.

"You try to tie into people," Landers said. "What you are trying to do is build connections, which builds understanding. And understanding leads to trust. I've seen some very good people who have a hard time connecting with the crowd. They are people of integrity and intelligence and could bring a great deal to public life, but they have a hard time making that connection."

One of the odd things, however, about those who are criticized for not being able to connect well -- Duka

kis and Schmoke, for instance -- is that they have gotten pretty far without it.

Whatever their failings as to warmth and cuddliness, Mike Dukakis was a three-term governor of one of America's most populous states and Kurt Schmoke, elected mayor at age 37, has never lost an election.

Still, it doesn't hurt to be likable. But can likability be faked? Can you pretend to be warm and fuzzy while really being cold and hard?

Landers laughed. "Of course it can be faked! Good gosh!" he said.

"There are charlatans in all professions. I suppose you know a few in journalism."

More than a few, actually, I said.

Landers talks in human terms. How he is the eldest of eight children, how he was a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, how, while already a city councilman, he went to classes at Morgan State University at 8 a.m. to finish the degree he never got and then rushed down to City Hall to work for the people, finally getting his B.A. in business administration last year.

Did you grow up in a log cabin, too? I asked.

"No, but my brothers and I have built a cabin in the woods," he said. "It's not log cabin, though. But we built it ourselves, from a Time-Life home improvement book. And it has no running water and no electricity."

So you read by firelight?

"Kerosene lamps," he said.

Is there any possibility you have ever split a rail?

"Some logs," Landers said. "No rails."

Still, it ought to be worth something.

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