Riley's all smiles (and waves) on the road to Nov. 7

October 12, 2006|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

It's 7:30 in the morning, and Doug Riley is smiling and waving at traffic at the intersection of Seminary Avenue and Dulaney Valley Road in Lutherville.

When I stop for the red light, I smile and wave back.

Understand, I'm not usually big on smiling and waving that early in the morning.

Smiling makes my face feel as if it's about to crack. And when I wave to Riley, I accidentally bump my 7-Eleven coffee against the steering wheel, which causes half of it to spill in my lap.

The coffee, of course, has been super-heated to 5,000 degrees as required by the Convenience Store Association of America, so now I'm actually gasping in pain and waving at Doug Riley.

The reason I know it's Doug Riley smiling and waving is that he's holding a blue sign with one hand that says "Doug Riley, Maryland State Senate. Principled. Proven. Respected."

Politicians who smile and wave at busy intersections have always fascinated me.

So a few hours later, I get Doug Riley, an affable-sounding 53-year-old Republican hoping to represent the 42nd District, on the phone.

There's no point in recounting the horror of the coffee-scalding incident, so I jump right to the purpose of my call.

All this smiling and waving politicians do at busy intersections during election season, I say, does it actually do any good?

Does it get you any votes?

"I think it does accomplish the purpose," Riley says. "No. 1, it's giving you name recognition. And No. 2, it's showing people you're working hard and really want this job."

It turns out Riley is practically the Cal Ripken Jr. of political smiling and waving, having done it for 16 years and still giving it all he's got five days a week as the general election looms.

He gets to whatever intersection he's smiling and waving at around 7 a.m. and continues smiling and waving until 8:30 a.m., when he packs it up and goes to his law office.

Riley also claims to be something of a smiling and waving pioneer in these parts.

He first started doing it back in 1990, he says, when he was running for the Baltimore County Council.

His opponent, Barbara Bachur, was the incumbent and had a lot more dough to spend on campaigning than Riley did.

"I decided I had to do something to get name recognition that didn't cost money," he says.

Somehow, he came up with the idea of standing at a busy corner and smiling and waving to passing motorists and hoping not to cause a fiery 10-car pileup by distracted drivers.

Sixteen years ago, though, people didn't know quite what to make of all this smiling and waving.

They basically thought Doug Riley was a weirdo.

Let me get this straight. You're going to smile and wave at drivers at 7 in the morning? They'll hate you! They'll run you over!

Now, of course, there are so many politicians smiling and waving at busy intersections that it's like a smilers-and-wavers convention out there weekday mornings.

Riley's technique for smiling and waving is pretty straightforward.

"You actually do make eye contact with drivers," he says.

And he's an ambidextrous waver, as all the great ones are, switching hands constantly.

Smiling, though, is a different story.

"Smiling is much like the day you got married," he says. "After about a half-hour or so, your face is stretched and you're getting tired of it."

But Riley says he actually enjoys smiling and waving to potential voters, and he does appear to be having a good time.

Look, you can tell a fake political smiler-and-waver anytime.

Dick Cheney smiles and waves, and it's the look of a man who will set a pack of Rottweilers on you the minute the cameras go away.

Hilary Clinton smiles and waves and you think: In an hour or so, she's going to go home and pop Bill right in the kisser with a hard right.

Riley says the reaction to his smiling and waving is mostly positive, with a lot of motorists giving him the thumbs-up sign or beeping their car horns.

But since we live in a time when every other human being seems ticked off at the world, he admits that "occasionally, you'll get an obscene gesture."

And maybe, if you're Doug Riley, you look out at the traffic one day and see a fat guy with gray hair waving back at you with a pained expression on his face.

Maybe his eyes are watering, too.

Maybe he just spilled steaming-hot 7-Eleven coffee all over his lap.

You definitely shouldn't take that personally.

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