The candidacy of American Joe: Seriously, folks

August 09, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

American Joe Miedusiewski's eyes are dancing and his feet are feeling fine. He's just walked 30 miles across Montgomery County, where more people knew him than he'd expected, and his run for governor, once considered a laugh, is now considered a delight for all who love upsets.

If he doesn't watch out, people will begin to take him seriously. He stood there Sunday night at a fund-raiser at Chiaparelli's Restaurant in Little Italy drinking beer straight from a bottle, and he seemed slightly awed that legions of the formerly distracted are beginning to pay attention.

In Montgomery County, the Washington TV cameras followed him everywhere and put him into Maryland suburban homes where he became a face, and maybe even an issue, instead of merely a guy with a quirky Bawlamer name. Considering he was running at about 3 percent recognition in the D.C. suburbs in the last poll, this can only be a plus.

Everybody likes the idea of American Joe, and now they'll have to see if they like what he's saying. Everybody treasures the notion of any underdog beating the establishment types, but now that Miedusiewski's reached No. 2 in the Democratic polls and getting attention in distant places, they'll have to take it one step further: What would he do if he won?

Outside a firehouse in Montgomery County last week, people spotted his signs and yelled, "American Joe! You're the guy who gave us Barney Fife." They'd heard his radio spots on Parris Glendening, whose claims of being a former police commissioner turned up comically exaggerated, and it made them laugh.

This is spitball politics, nailing the authority figure when he's got his attitude up, and winning the delight of the rest of the class. They're not exactly certain what the new kid stands for yet, but he's given everybody a momentary snort.

At Chiaparelli's, though, he said a few things he could have dodged. It was a mostly Baltimore crowd, worried about the metro area's crime and poverty. But Miedusiewski told them about his walk through wealthy Montgomery County, where he was surprised to see pockets of trouble like Baltimore's.

"They have the same problems as everywhere else," he said, "but they haven't had legislators who articulated their problems. Their troubles matter. I'll look out for them, I'll articulate for them."

He didn't have to say anything at all about Montgomery County, not to this crowd with its fears that Baltimore is about to lose its historical statehouse muscle. Or he could have taken Parris Glendening's route. When speaking on his home turf, Glendening has called for Montgomery and Prince George's counties to pull together against Baltimore. When he comes here, he changes his tune to a lullaby.

Glendening, as the front-runner, has had his words monitored pretty carefully. He promises financial aid right and left, and everybody asks, 'Where's the money coming from?' He calls himself a former police commissioner, and it becomes a statewide punch line. Miedusiewski's supplying most of the laughs. He hasn't been taken seriously enough for real scrutiny yet.

At Chiaparelli's, for example, were two supporters, Bob and Shirley Scharpf, who live near Cambridge. They're a long way from home, except philosophically. They threw a crab feast for Miedusiewski the other day, and an astonishing 312 people showed up. They like his stands on abortion and certain gun control efforts -- he's against them.

Most polls say Miedusiewski's bucking current emotions about the two issues, but many voters haven't quite focused on his substance yet. Right now, it's the idea of American Joe that's compelling, not the details.

"I'm very supportive of his effort," said Mary Pat Clarke, the Baltimore City Council president who doesn't agree with him on everything but attended his fund-raiser. "He's down to earth. He's fought to a respectable position with no money. Plus, I love underdogs."

It's the American way. For the moment, it's the American Joe way. We laugh at his radio ads and watch him walk across an entire county where they never heard of him before, and it's like something out of a Frank Capra movie: Mr. Miedusiewski Goes to the Statehouse.

At which point, voters move past the idea of American Joe to the next question: Who is this guy? Now, at least, he's got them asking.

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