Judging by support, it's time for mom to get back to work

September 20, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

"Betsy Dawson for Orphans' Court," the signs say.

Kate, Betsy's 13-year-old daughter, has been up late lettering the signs. There are markers with the caps off and glitter all over the rug.

"There is glitter on my bedspread," Betsy sighs. "It is everywhere."

There will be plenty of time for Kate to clean up when the polls close. Right now, her poll workers are due for doughnuts and root beer. She has to juice up the neighborhood kids on sugar and then get them to their polling places.

It doesn't take long for the hot sun of last Tuesday's election day to drain the goodwill of the kids working for Kate, her mother's ex-officio campaign manager.

Jeff, age 7, is sprawled on the sidewalk looking like he's melted. His shoes are off, and Kate's sign is leaning against the top of his head.

Joe, age 10, wants to start a fight with a voter who cheerfully says it was a great day to vote for Glendening. Somebody has to explain that Betsy wasn't the only one running for public office.

Jessie wants to know if Betsy will be getting foster children like Aunt Ellen. "What orphans, Mom?" Just try explaining probate to an 8-year-old.

Kate, the junk-food queen, rewards her campaign workers with cookies and more soda. No open bar at this headquarters. The next morning, Betsy's four children and their friends wake to find that Betsy has won one of three Democratic nominations for Orphans' Court in Anne Arundel County.

Stunned, then gleeful, they leave for school believing their work, their signs, have gotten Betsy elected. It is the ultimate civics lesson. Nothing in their social studies books will ever match it.

"They learned that real people run for office, that it is not just names on a sign," says Betsy, "but that name recognition is a big part of electioneering. They met people running against me, and they learned that they were not bad people just because they were my opponents.

"But I was concerned about how they would take it if I lost. The kids offered all of their money to pay for postcards or signs. Kate put her heart and soul into this. She has plotted out my whole political future. And this is a girl who didn't know there was a county executive."

Betsy learned some lessons, too.

At home with her four children for 12 years, Betsy was asking 80,000 voters to pass judgment on her -- a tough way to re-enter the work force.

Women such as Betsy are not used to that. They are used to volunteering, filling a void, doing a job no one else will step forward to do. Even if they have interviewed for jobs, they have never had to convince tens of thousands of strangers to hire them. As ferocious as we might be on our children's behalf, we are not always so sure of ourselves.

"I ran because so many people told me I should, that I would be good at this," says Betsy, a lawyer out of Case-Western Reserve who worked for Anne Arundel County and in private practice before her children were born.

"But I find it very difficult to tout myself. To ask people for money or time when I know, if they are like me, they have other bills to pay, other things to do."

Judges in Orphans' Court do not send children to orphanages, Jessie. They make decisions when wills are contested. Betsy has the legal training and the problem-solving skills born of years of community activism and motherhood to do this job. She just can't bring herself to shove her hand into a crowd like Bill Clinton and shout that message.

"Deciding to do this was easy. Doing it is hard," Betsy says.

Betsy receives flowers from a friend after the primary. Both a note of congratulations and a sympathy card are attached. The dual messages convey an understanding of how difficult it will be for Betsy to promote herself to strangers between now and November.

"I do a job well, but I want people to form their own opinions about me. That's not the way most people campaign."

My advice? Let Kate and her Kool-Aid-stand brand of politics handle it. Some homemade signs covered with glitter and some kids paid with candy bars and Betsy will be sitting behind the bench, taking care of all the orphans Jessie is so worried about.

To hear Susan Reimer read one of her columns, call Sundial and punch in the four-digit code 6156. See the SunSource directory on Page 2A for your Sundial number.

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