`Working families' a term for the times

Ambiguous term becomes rallying cry in race for governor

Maryland Votes 2006


`Working families' are political focus Take a soccer mom, add a NASCAR dad, blend them together in a heated election year and what do you get?

A working family.

Working families, a deliciously ambiguous segment of society, are hands-down the most coveted demographic among candidates vying to be Maryland's next governor.

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. strives to mitigate the electric rate increases, he's doing it "for Maryland's working families."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's recent win in his lawsuit against the Public Service Commission is "a victory for working families."

And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan? He has "a plan to begin to give hard-working families the affordable health care they deserve."

The working family. So noble, so needy. So politically perfect.

As Marylanders become increasingly anxious about paying more for electricity just as they're paying more for gasoline just as they're paying more for health insurance just as interest rates rise and the stock market goes iffy, this term could be the right thing at the right time, says Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda polling company Potomac Inc. Whichever candidate lassos that angst-filled Zeitgeist, Haller thinks has the best shot of being elected governor in November.

"I can't recall an issue in modern Maryland history that has been so searingly omnipresent," Haller says of the rates scare. "Everyone is flailing about trying to be more the advocate for the working family. But to the average person, they see no one has come up with a workable approach. There's a lot of skepticism and a lot of anger."

Working families were not born overnight, though a casual observer of the political firestorm surrounding the impending electricity rate increase might think so.

Sharpened debate

The gubernatorial troika has largely boiled that debate right down to working families: Who will be their white knight? Who will save them from big, scary utility bills? Who's on their side?

Just this week, on the same day, Ehrlich and O'Malley invoked the working family as news spread that the General Assembly would meet in a special summer session to address the rates crisis.

"Due to Baltimore City's interference, more than one million Marylanders were saddled last week with an electric rate stabilization plan that includes ... no concessions whatsoever from energy companies for working families," Ehrlich's statement says.

And O'Malley's? "We will continue [the] fight for the interests of working families - not those of powerful corporations."

So who exactly is this working family that's been commanding so much airtime and newsprint? Where do they live? Where do they work? What do they look like?

"I can tell you honestly that that strikes me as one of the most meaningless phrases you can find," says Towson University rhetoric professor Richard Vatz, an outspoken Ehrlich supporter. "Who is not part of a working family except for a single person, who aspires to be?

"It's all rhetorical legerdemain."

If anyone would know who these working families are, it's the officials at Boston College's Sloan Work and Family Research Network, an organization designed to track the working families' needs.

Over at Sloan they're apparently very busy since, as they put it, everybody's a working family.

"Who isn't a working family these days?" Judi Casey, the network's director, says with a laugh. You don't have to be married, she says - you don't even have to have kids.

It's singles taking care of their aging parents, she says. It's a brother helping his sister raise her children. It's unrelated people living together.

"It's a chambermaid or a CEO or a truck driver or a teacher," Casey says. "If you stop 10 people on the street and say, `Are you a working family?' I think you'd get a pretty good hit rate of, `Yeah, that's me.'"

Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg recalls when "working family" used to mean "working class" or, more bluntly, poor people. But she knows that's not who the politicians are talking about now.

"To me, this is aimed not at people who can't pay their bills but at people who are going to have a little bit harder of a time paying their bills," she says, beginning to parrot a candidate's bravado: "These people are working for themselves, trying to make a living - we want to help them. We're on your side, we know how hard you work and we want to help."

Hirschburg has noticed local candidates using the term with increasing frequency. With the knowing tone of someone who's been around a few campaigns, she dryly adds, "I would have to believe it has something to do with the demographics."

Haller would have to agree.

It's all about the so-called Reagan Democrats, he says, Democrats who in tough economic times can be persuaded to vote Republican. They're out there and all three gubernatorial candidates want to find them.

Fear and anger

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