A candidate's `UNcommon' ballot ploy

Howard council contender banks on quirky name appeal

Maryland votes 2006


Jeffrey L. Underwood may indeed be "UNcommon" - the way he will be listed on the Howard County ballot this fall - but the gimmick's appeal to voters remains to be seen.

In an era when voters write in cartoon characters and established politicians such as former state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski legally adopt their nicknames, Underwood - owner of UNcommon Realty - is hoping his one-word listing on the ballot will set himself apart in his bid for Howard County Council.

But in Howard County, where residents are riled up about land use and development issues this year and where voters take their local politics seriously, Underwood's strategy could prove risky.

"It's kind of weird," said Susan Vonderlippe, who lives in Underwood's neighborhood.

Politicians have long favored nicknames as a way of offering a less formal face to the public. Prominent examples include President Jimmy Carter and, in Maryland, the late Clarence H. Du Burns, first black mayor of Baltimore; state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Some have gone to extreme lengths to gain a bit of electoral advantage from name recognition. In 1978, Republican fringe candidate Melvin Perkins found himself unopposed in his 6th District race for Congress when the incumbent Democrat from Western Maryland died. Perkins lost, but two years later tried to have his name changed to that of the late congressman, Goodloe Byron. (A judge refused.)

Under state law, a candidate can use a name other than his or her legal name after filing an affidavit swearing that "the candidate is generally known by that other name" in news accounts or in the community.

State election officials have approved Underwood's bid to be listed on the ballot as UNcommon, said Betty Nordaas, Howard County's election administrator.

"I seriously considered changing my name to UNcommon, but my mother might not like that," said Underwood, who uses the first syllable of his legal name as part of the name of his real estate business.

The 48-year old also uses an abbreviated version of the name as a vanity license plate on his family's green Mercedes sedan.

"My personality is uncommon. I'm uncommon. Everything I do is uncommon. I've been associated with that moniker for 25 years. It just suits me," the candidate said.

Such a campaign strategy is distinctly unusual, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"It suggests to me he's trying to find some way to generate attention or interest," Norris said.

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist, suspects that Underwood is looking for advertising from the election.

"It's not a new practice at all," Crenson said, recalling that before it became legal for lawyers to advertise, it was common for newly minted ones to run for House of Delegates - under their own names - to advertise their practices.

The name isn't all that's uncommon about Underwood.

The businessman sought unsuccessfully to be appointed to fill a County Council vacancy in April, claiming residency in a condominium on Majors Lane in East Columbia that he owns but doesn't occupy.

Last week - on the last day for candidates to formally join the race - he filed to run as a Democrat for a different, west Columbia County Council seat, using his 2,786-square-foot Walnut Grove address, where he, his wife, Shari, and four children have lived for several years.

The candidate said he was prepared to move into the 1,280-square-foot east Columbia condo had he been appointed and would have moved the longtime tenant there to another of his properties. Instead, he and his family live in the finished portion of a partly renovated house on Walnut Grove that they have occupied since 2002.

Underwood's driver's license lists a third address, on Donleigh Drive in Allview Estates, where he and others say his parents live.

Underwood, who identified himself as a "conservative Democrat," is running in one of Howard County's most liberal areas and has yet to map out a campaign strategy against two established Democrats in the district.

Tony McGuffin, Democratic Party chairman in Howard County, wondered whether Underwood just wants free advertising for his business, something Underwood denies.

"I do zero advertising for my company," Underwood said. "All my business is through referrals."

Rival politicians are puzzled about their fellow candidate.

"It certainly seems a little bit off, but that's a democracy," said Joshua Feldmark, one of the other two Democrats running in the district

Mary Kay Sigaty, the third Democrat in the race, who missed winning the council seat four years ago by 36 votes, questioned the legality of someone running under another name. "What can I say? It seems really odd," she said.


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