Miedusiewski fights odds, targets undecided voters CAMPAIGN 1994 -- THE RACE FOR GOVERNOR

June 05, 1994|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND -- The way Harold E. Appel sees it, American Joe Miedusiewski is Maryland's best bet for governor -- even if he is a Democrat.

That's why you'll find a red, white and blue "American Joe for Governor" sign in a place of honor covering the neon "Bud" logo behind the bar at Appel's Gateway lounge.

"He's just very down-to-earth," said Mr. Appel, a Republican businessman who lives in West Virginia but dabbles in Western Maryland politics. "He doesn't have that normal mumbo jumbo and the phony political smile and handshake that they all seem to have."

Mr. Appel's reaction to the 44-year-old state senator from Baltimore is typical of the voters who meet Mr. Miedusiewski -- whether he's pressing the flesh at The Mountain Club in Rawlings, at Baltimore's Lexington Market, on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland.

They use words like "genuine," "sincere" and "a good listener" to describe him -- probably a testament to the 25 years he spent managing his parents' landmark East Baltimore bar, American Joe's. They also say he's not like the glad-handing politicians they've met in the past.

His populist messages -- on public safety, education or welfare reform -- are simple, direct and plain. His delivery is natural and confident. And what emerges from his youthful image is an old-fashioned idealism about the role of government and his belief that it has gone awry.

"He's come a long way," said one lobbyist of Mr. Miedusiewski. "He's an excellent stump speaker, but the question remains, 'Can a guy named American Joe really be elected governor?' I think not."

Well, his name sure is an icebreaker -- its origin is still the No. 1 question voters put to him.

As the story goes, he was born Joseph Francis Miedusiewski (pronounced Med-a-SHEF-ski), named after his immigrant grandfather. In 1974, he legally changed his name to American Joe -- which neighbors and bar patrons had called both his grandfather and father before him.

The reason was simple: His father, Francis Joseph, had narrowly lost an election because people didn't recognize his real name on the ballot. To prevent that, the youngest American Joe made the change and hasn't lost yet.

But a more important question dogs his long shot campaign.

'But can he win?'

Can he win a Democratic primary when two of the four major candidates, Lt. Melvin A. "Mickey" Steinberg and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, have much of the big money tied up, and the fourth, Montgomery County Sen. Mary H. Boergers, is playing the angle that she's a liberal woman?

"Everybody says, 'I like Joe. I like his message. I like how he looks. But can he win?' " Mr. Miedusiewski complains. "The answer is, 'If you get behind him, he can win.' "

With polls showing up to 40 percent of the electorate uncommitted and three months to go until the primary, American Joe is working on the undecided vote 16 hours a day, one handshake at a time.

"We hit Main Street America . . . nonpolitical types who are not going to make up their minds until the last two to four weeks before the primary," he said. "When the people compare me with the other candidates, they're going to see that the others are just blowing smoke."

It is an approach that seems to work, at least in the short run.

"I like what I hear. He seems to represent to me a new breath of perspective and honesty and sensibility to what the common man may be expecting from government," said Dr. Wayne C. Spiggle, president-elect of the Allegany County Medical Society, which invited Mr. Miedusiewski to speak Wednesday night in LaVale.

"In this country, unfortunately, elections are for sale," said Dr. Spiggle, a member of Common Cause, the nonpartisan political reform lobby. "Meeting in small groups like this, miracles do happen. If he has the energy and the time to do this often enough, then perhaps he has a chance of being elected."

After speaking with 50 area doctors in a suburban home at the foot of one of Western Maryland's rounded mountains, Mr. Miedusiewski headed to the tiny community of Rawlings, near West Virginia.

Norman F. Geatz Jr., a 67-year-old Cumberland insurance salesman, was having an after-tennis beer in the snack bar of The Mountain Club when Mr. Miedusiewski walked in with his campaign aides, literature, bumper stickers and an extended hand.

Mr. Geatz, a lock-em-up kind of a guy, wanted to know what American Joe was going to do about crime -- which gave Mr. Miedusiewski entree to explain his public safety plan, featuring no parole for repeat violent offenders.

"I'm for American Joe," Mr. Geatz boomed after the candidate left. "The guy . . . seems apolitical instead of political to me. He seems sincere."

Among a half-dozen other patrons at The Mountain Club snack bar was Robb F. Cockey, 49, a Frostburg psychologist who was impressed the first time he met Mr. Miedusiewski -- mostly

because of his anti-gun-control stance.

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