American Joe woos voters and defends his name

December 28, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A governor named American Joe?

Nah.

''Come on,'' says American Joe Miedusiewski, who's heard this kind of talk and is running for governor anyway. ''What about Parris? Parris Glendening, huh? There's a name for you. Somebody gave this poor soul that name at birth. How's the name Parris gonna play where there's people dredging and fishing? And what about Mickey Steinberg? Governor Mickey? Come on, come on . . .''

American Joe's not supposed to be here. He's not supposed to be running for governor of Maryland, for reasons owing to his name and his background, and he's not supposed to be standing at Greenmount and North avenues yesterday, because he's supposed to be strictly a Highlandtown and Canton and Fells Point kind of a guy, but there he was, anyway.

He was standing there yesterday to talk about crime. Too many career criminals, he was saying, so let's eliminate parole for repeat violent offenders. He had the financial figures all tabulated -- how to get the money to build a prison to house all those we're going to keep behind bars -- and he was very specific about why he'd picked Greenmount and North to talk about it: It's one of the five deadliest corners in a city which breaks its own horrifying homicide record almost every day now.

It's nearly six months since Miedusiewski decided he'd run for governor, and weeks since his official announcement, and yet he knows a simple fact still exists: A lot of people aren't taking him particularly seriously. Some think he's hoping to shake loose a second spot on somebody else's ticket. He sneers at such talk. Some think he's lost the ability to count votes. He talks about extending himself, mentions last February when his wife Pat first started pushing him to run, mentions last June and the night at Broadway and Eastern avenues, where he was giving a talk to the Polish Heritage Association.

It was all about taking yourself to places nobody expects you to go, about believing in yourself when others might not.

When he was finished, an elderly woman said something that Miedusiewski says made him re-evaluate his life. ''Go home,'' she said, ''and give that speech to yourself.''

So here he is. He's turning his back on a safe state Senate seat for a shot at governor, doing it when political insiders claim he's not well-enough known, not well-enough bankrolled, claim he's strictly an East Bawlamer kind of guy, claim a name like American Joe will never be taken seriously, which is where American Joe starts talking about Parris and Mickey.

The story behind his own name's pretty well known: Joe's grandfather arrived here in 1909, worked as a longshoreman, eventually opened up Joe's American Meat Market. Became known as American Joe. Sold the meat market and opened up a neighborhood tavern, American Joe's, where the grandson grew up and watched his father, Francis Joe, run for a legislative seat in 1970. He lost. Nobody could find his name on the ballot, because they were looking for ''American Joe.''

Four years later, when the grandson ran for office, he first changed his legal name to American Joe. Finished first. And he's been the top vote-getter in the district ever since.

Big deal, say opponents, it's a long way from East Baltimore to the rest of the state. This is said with a certain cultural condescension: working-class ethnic, unpronounceable last name, the patriotic first name. The smart money says it's not polished enough for today's voters.

Miedusiewski figures the smart money has it backward.

On the night he announced, he led a torchlight parade down to Fells Point, to the spot where his grandfather first landed. He told the crowd about talking every night with neighborhood people. ''I feel the callouses on the bricklayer's hands,'' he said. ''I hear the raspy voice of the steel worker who tends the coke ovens. I see the weathered face of the longshoreman. I smell the bread being baked by those who toil in the night while we sleep. And when I stand at the water's edge, I can taste the salt on my lips from the river that has made this harbor a great port.''

That's not just a guy from East Baltimore talking. It sounds like a guy who still connects with ordinary people and doesn't care what the experts call him, as long as the voters think about calling him governor.

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