Second generation puts dad's campaign first

Maryland Votes 2006

July 25, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore City Hall is his second home, he's certainly not camera-shy, and he is front-and-center in Maryland's gubernatorial race.

No, it's not Mayor Martin O'Malley.

It's his 8-year-old son, William.

Over the past two weeks, William O'Malley has emerged as the (baby) face of his father's bid to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., with a starring role in the mayor's latest television campaign ad.

Using children and family in campaigns is an old political maneuver. Ulysses S. Grant, a two-term Republican president from 1869 to 1877, used his children to greet visitors during whistle-stops. The strategy wasn't as successful for President Jimmy Carter, who was lampooned for saying in 1980 that he had discussed nuclear policy with his daughter, Amy.

"It is almost always advantageous to the campaign to showcase children," said Doug Wead, best-selling author of All The Presidents' Children and The Raising of a President.

O'Malley aides say two 30-second television spots that have been airing since last week in the Baltimore region - one starring William and another featuring O'Malley's mother - are meant to display the middle-class roots that the mayor says he would champion as governor and are aimed at building support with female voters.

The commercials have drawn barbs from critics who view the ads as shameless, sentimental ploys.

"I think the mayor using his children as a political prop is not only disingenuous but a little too politically opportunistic for people to handle," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

Ehrlich - whose 7-year-old son Drew is familiar to the public limelight - isn't in a position to criticize the mayor. Drew has appeared in taxpayer-financed public service announcements and major events, and his frequent athletic drills on the front lawn of the governor's mansion have made for much media fodder.

"Drew and Kendel just cut a commercial for tax-free shopping in Maryland in August. ... Drew's 7, and he's in the commercial," Ehrlich said during a WBAL radio show over the weekend.

"So I guess I could be accused of that as well. That's a call that only an elected official and his family can make, how much you want to expose or not expose your children, how it is going to be played out in the course of a campaign. ... So I'm not going to criticize the mayor and his decision."

In William O'Malley's commercial, entitled "My Dad," the younger O'Malley stands in front of a classroom - not his actual one - and reads an essay.

"My dad is really great," says William, who is shown playing baseball with his dad. "My dad works hard for our family and he'll work hard for yours, too."

Family appeal

The second spot shows O'Malley and his mother, Barbara, sitting on a couch in her home. O'Malley credits his parents for teaching him that public service is honorable, a lesson that he and his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, have passed on to their four children.

"Family: It's really the core of our fight to help every working family in Maryland have the same opportunities we do," O'Malley says.

O'Malley said in an interview that it made sense to bring his son and mother into a campaign that he has used to meet with Maryland families in their homes over "kitchen table" talks.

"The most important lessons that we learn in life we learn from our own family, from our parents around the kitchen table," he said.

Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, called O'Malley's commercials "terrific."

"Most people are going to look at that and say, `Aw, isn't that cute,'" Norris said. "It's intended to humanize the guy."

The strategy isn't always advisable. After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, the Republican's aides advised against using his children.

"Reagan handlers felt the Reagan kids called attention to divorce and a dysfunctional family that hurt the children," Wead said.

O'Malley and Ehrlich should realize another element, Wead said. If the candidates hope their eldest sons will one day carry their political torches, they might serve their children best by keeping them out of the limelight, he said.

"It is almost always disadvantageous - even damaging - to the child to be so used," Wead said. "The problem is that the child has a hard time carving out his or her own identity separate from the public figure who is seeking office, and it can become a lifelong struggle."

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, said O'Malley's commercials are "strange" because they air in the Baltimore market, where he is well known.

"The mayor does not have the reputation as a brutal, heavy-handed guy. He doesn't need to tell us he's warm and fuzzy," Crenson said. "It is kind of cheap."

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