In politics, do family ties bind the candidate?

September 19, 2006|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

In a speech on primary election night, congressional candidate John Sarbanes said that early in the campaign, voters had said to him, "If you do half the job your father did, you have my vote."

Later, voters started saying, "If you do a quarter of the job your father did, you have my vote." John Sarbanes came to the conclusion "that my father's stock had gone way up."

He was speaking lightly, but his family name was a serious matter during his successful primary campaign in the 3rd Congressional District.

Pundits and opponents alike said the 44-year-old son of retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes had the advantage -- the unfair advantage -- of his father's unblemished reputation.

"I would say the senator was the winner," said one of his primary opponents, state Sen. Paula Hollinger.

It struck me as odd that politics, unlike medicine or academics or sports, is a business where a son is criticized for following his father into the trade.

After all, politics has been a family business since John Quincy Adams followed his father into the White House. Leadership is not inherited in this country, but it shouldn't be any surprise when sons and daughters follow parents into politics.

It is more than nepotism. The sons of coal miners and steelworkers and autoworkers used to follow their fathers into the mines and the mills and the plants, before those jobs started to disappear. It was what they grew up with. It was what they knew the most about. It was a life they had lived and a life they could envision for themselves.

But young Sarbanes was at pains to keep his father in the background during the campaign.

"I felt I owed it to the voters to let them know very quickly what I had been doing for the last 20 years and not to presume that they should automatically transfer their positive feeling [about the senator] to me," Sarbanes said in an interview.

You can't blame the son for wanting to stand on his own two feet. But if I had been his mother, I might have asked him why he didn't say, "A vote for me is a vote for Paul Sarbanes' son, and the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree."

When I questioned him, John Sarbanes said, "The pundits and the insiders ... take offense if you are trading on the name and you have nothing else to offer."

But it is about more than a name.

When my own son was in middle school, he got caught "pencil fighting" with one of his buddies, a kind of sword-fighting across the aisles in the classroom. Not exactly like carrying a loaded weapon to school, but it was disruptive, and he was sent to the principal's office.

Joe was told by the principal that she knew his parents and more was expected of him as a result. In other words, he was expected to live up to our reputation in the community. Joe was told that he didn't come from the kind of family that pencil fought, that he came from decent stock and he'd better start acting like it.

That was the end of the pencil fighting for Joe, and I am willing to bet John Sarbanes learned that same kind of lesson somewhere along the line.

"If the family's commitment has been a positive one, people are prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt," he said.

But it is not like his father played a connection and got him a no-show job on a road crew. And there is a difference between name recognition and family reputation. Just ask the Kennedys. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Toward the end of the campaign, in a kind of irony, voters started to ask the candidate where his dad was.

"They wanted to know what my father thought about my running. They wanted to know if he was excited for me and if it mattered to him," said Sarbanes. "All the things you might have expected them to assume."

It was then that young Sarbanes brought his dad on board. The elder Sarbanes started showing up at events and in ads.

In a way, it was his turn. John Sarbanes joked in an interview with Bay Weekly that his father wouldn't have won without the wife and children he took to rallies and parades.

It is funny about families.

My son is grateful that I kept my maiden name so that he cannot easily be traced to me. John Sarbanes has no doubt outgrown whatever irritability he ever felt at being known first as his father's son.

After all, that might be what the voters are counting on.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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