A Second Look at Candidate Miedusiewski

August 14, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

If this year's political campaign were a game of horseshoes, Joe Miedusiewski would be in heaven. But as the old saying goes, politics ain't beanbag . . . or horseshoes, either. Closest to the pole is not good enough.

At this stage, Mr. Miedusiewski comes closest to beating Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening in the Democratic primary. He may even win by a large margin in the populous Baltimore suburbs. Odds are, though, he'll wind up as a footnote in this election -- the guy who almost pulled off the second-greatest upset in Maryland history (Harry Hughes' 1978 win being the biggest).

Don't count him out entirely, however. Public dissatisfaction with other gubernatorial hopefuls is widespread. If most voters had -- their druthers, they'd pick ''none of the above.''

It could be that Mr. Miedusiewski becomes the beneficiary of this dissatisfaction. He is, after all, one of the few candidates willing to confront issues directly and present coherent, pragmatic solutions. You may like or dislike his stances -- modified pro-choice, anti-gun control, anti-tax increase, pro-education reforms and decidedly anti-criminals -- but you know where he stands.

He also is the most eloquent in expressing his points of view. Listening to American Joe Miedusiewski -- he was christened Joseph Francis but changed his name for political reasons -- you get the impression he has carefully thought through the issues and reached some common-sense conclusions.

In many ways, Mr. Miedusiewski is the 1990s version of 1966's surprise primary winner, George P. Mahoney. That was the campaign in which Mr. Mahoney won the hearts of rednecks and blue-collar suburbanites with his racist, anti-open-housing theme, ''Your home is your castle -- protect it.'' He appealed to the Archie Bunkers of that generation.

Mr. Miedusiewski is appealing to another group of disaffected suburban voters, the ones who are fed up with the crime situation, Big Government, liberal solutions that seem to make matters worse and candidates who talk out of both sides of their mouth. But he is making his appeal far more slickly and without the malice implicit in the Mahoney campaign.

There's considerable irony in Mr. Miedusiewski's situation. He spent 20 years in Annapolis without making much of an impression -- other than as a likable, college-educated delegate (and then senator) representing his blue-collar Southeast Baltimore constituency. Yet now that he is running for governor, Mr. Miedusiewski seems eager to all but disown the city's predicament. His pitch is to the suburbs; solving Baltimore's plight is not part of his campaign message.

And yet, Mr. Miedusiewski's popularity in the city is on the rise. He, at least, knows Baltimore's problems. Local pols trust him to do the right thing if he's elected.

Conversely, many local pols don't trust Mr. Glendening. He's too slick for them. His answers are too mechanical and knee-jerk. He can give you a dissertation on Baltimore's urban ills, but there's a gnawing feeling his heart's still in the Washington suburbs. His anti-Baltimore comments earlier in the campaign only reinforce the belief that Mr. Glendening wants to be all things to all people.

Working in Mr. Miedusiewski's favor is Mayor Schmoke's support for Mr. Glendening. The anti-Schmoke factions -- one headed by Council President (and wannabe mayor) Mary Pat Clarke, the other by Gov. William Donald Schaefer (who has a deep dislike for Mr. Glendening) -- are gravitating to the Miedusiewski camp.

In the Baltimore suburbs and in rural Maryland, the Miedusiewski message seems to be playing well. Only the presence of Lt. Gov. Mickey Steinberg stands as a major impediment. Mr. Steinberg still could draw a big enough vote in Jewish suburban areas to sink Mr. Miedusiewski's chances.

This race might end up a lot closer than anyone imagined a month ago. The final outcome could depend on the size of Mr. Miedusiewski's margin in the Baltimore suburbs and the leanings of voters in populous Montgomery County. If Democrats in Montgomery line up solidly behind Mr. Glendening, he'll probably withstand any primary challenge. But if Mr. Glendening is heavily undercut in Montgomery by local state Sen. Mary Boergers' presence in the race, the election could prove a toss-up.

That remains a big, big ''if.'' Mr. Miedusiewski still has to prove to most folks that he's got the best statewide vision for Maryland. Televised debates late in the campaign could prove crucial.

For now, Mr. Miedusiewski remains the decided underdog. No one would be foolish enough to declare him a ''lost ball in tall grass'' -- the famous description of Harry Hughes in 1978 -- but this polysyllabic candidate has a long way to go to pull off a Hughes-sized upset.

E9 Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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