Underdogs, top dogs of a political year

December 31, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

Our recent bout of democracy having been concluded with the usual flourish, there remains the task of awarding honors. Herewith, the first "Barking Dog Awards."

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley wins the coveted "Dog That Didn't Bark" award for keeping his head while many around him feared - or hoped - he would lose it.

Nary an untoward syllable escaped his lips during the entire ordeal. Advisers had urged him to affect maturity - to seem gubernatorial, if possible. He was also cautioned against stick-figure, how-to drawings of the sort he prepared for judges several years ago.

These diagrams suggested the men and women in black robes were clueless - couldn't do their jobs without the mayoral manual.

Though attractive to some, Mr. O'Malley's provocative style slipped into near total eclipse during the campaign. His billing as Maryland's political matinee idol disappeared too, as if the music of his Irish band, his guitar and his muscle shirts had been sent prematurely to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Conversely, the "Loudly Barking Dog" prize for '06 goes to Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who made it easy for his competitors. He diverted voters from considering his splendid career of public service by observing that one of his opponents, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, looked like Mother Hubbard.

Mrs. Owens gets the "Failing to Let Barking Dogs Bark" award. When she told Mr. Schaefer of her plan to run against him, she said it felt like taking the car keys away from Gramps. The comptroller, then 84, cried out in anguish. Blatant ageism, he declared.

With his opponents thus embroiled in an un-comptroller-like exchange, Del. Peter Franchot raced by both. The issues, he cried, the issues! This appeal to reason - or the feeling that his opponents were not up to the job - let him capture the "No Dog In That Fight" award. Mr. Franchot started the race as an all-but-complete unknown. At the end, he had toppled Maryland's reigning political icon, Mr. Schaefer. His unlikely victory may lead others to believe that anyone can win an election. They should think carefully and ask others how difficult it really is to beat an incumbent - unless he self-destructs.

Better still, the hopefuls should consider the success of John Sarbanes, who ran past a strong field of worthy candidates to win the 3rd Congressional District seat in Congress - and to demonstrate yet again the power of a famous name.

Young Sarbanes - who may turn out to have more of the charisma thing than any of the others in the new crop of Democratic chargers in Maryland - takes this year's "Pick of the Litter" award. The famous name helped the candidate separate himself from a talented field, of course, but the congressman-elect won the praise of his competitors for campaigning as if his name was Jones.

The retiring senior Sarbanes' seat in the U.S. Senate went to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, whose job in this election was almost the opposite of Mayor O'Malley's. Reliable sources say Mr. Cardin actually raised his voice on several occasions. He found his inner Elvis and in so doing locked up "Putting On the Dog" honors for 2006.

The Cardin victory over Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele seemed in doubt for most of the campaign. Cardin forces say they were always ahead, but everyone knew they didn't have puppy power. The scene-stealing canines were in the care of Mr. Steele, who said Democrats would unleash every possible malign accusation as they strove to bring him down. Why, he predicted, they would probably say he didn't love puppies. Of course he did, he declared. It was eye-catching, pre-emptive, early TV, but puppy love faded and he lost by 10 percentage points, earning him this year's "Those Dogs Won't Hunt" award.

Finally, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wins this year's "Man Bites Dog" prize for his misguided effort at campaign-promise reform. He solemnly promised not to promise. He lost. Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks victory can be won in politics without promises.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column runs on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

Columnist Leonard Pitts will return next Sunday.

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