What's in a name?


WHAT'S in a name, you ask? To hear American Joe Miedusiewski tell it, there's a promise of political music in the joyous jumble of vowels.

American Joe Miedusiewski. It's as American as baseball and as ethnic as kielbasa. It's a statement, it's a slogan. It's a bumper sticker. It's a political consultant's dream. It's the only name on the roster of candidates for governor that comes with its own guide to phonetics, Med-a-SHEV-ski.

And who else on the campaign circuit could get away with this smarmy riff: "I am not a career politician. I return to my district every day to interact with the people who elected me to office. That practice has stirred my very senses. I feel the callouses on the bricklayer's hands. I hear the raspy voice of the steelworker who tends the coke ovens. I smell the bread being baked by those who toil in the night while we sleep. And when I stand at the water's edge, I can taste the salt on my lips from the river that has made this harbor a great port . . ."

No, that's not Carl Sandburg waxing poetic on broad-shouldered Chicago. It's American Joe describing his East Baltimore district, the melting-pot 46th, a polyglot of Poles, Italians, German, Greeks, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Bohemians, Lumbee Indians and the parvenu baby boomers in Fells Point, Butcher's Hill and the colony of condos and marinas along Boston Street in Canton.

American Joe even has his office in Highlandtown, on Highland Avenue, a street nicknamed "embassy row" because in addition to AJ's digs, it also houses the district offices of Sen. Barbara Mikulski and 3rd District Rep. Benjamin Cardin.

American Joe hobnobs with Pat Sajack. He's pals with Bill and Hillary Clinton. And as the original sponsor of the legislation that created the Maryland Film Commission, his office walls are lined with autographed photos of the stars of made-in-Maryland movies such as Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Barry Levinson.

The question most frequently asked about American Joe's candidacy is the metaphysical inquiry: Huh?

"Look," says, Mr. Miedusiewski, "this is a safe seat. If I'm breathing, I win in this district."

But it wasn't always that way. Hence the moniker American Joe. In 1909, Joseph Francis Miedusiewski came to America. Joseph Francis begat Francis Joseph who begat Joseph Francis who became American Joe.

The original Miedusiewski opened Joe's American Meat Market on Fleet Street in Fells Point and his patrons nicknamed him "American Joe." Later he opened a tavern on Lucerne Street that he aptly named "American Joe's."

The second Miedusiewski, AJ's father, ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in 1970 and lost because his name appeared on the ballot as Francis Joseph. So in 1974, Joseph Francis went to court and had himself legally re-christened "American Joe." He won and he's been winning ever since.

Why is AJ moving up or out?

"Earlier this year, my wife, who's a nurse, and I sat down to assess our careers. We both decided we wanted to move up in our professions. So for me this is a one-way trip. I'm not going back to the Senate and I'm not interested in lieutenant governor. I'm in this to stay."

American Joe is a kind of motivational speaker, upbeat, conservative, as American as his name. Now hear this:

"In 1990, the top-selling T-shirt in Japan was 'We're Number One.' In the same year, the top-selling T-shirt in America was 'Underachiever and proud of it.' Friends, there is something seriously wrong with that picture."

American Joe believes the country is going to hell in a handcart.

"The wrong behavior has been rewarded for too long," he says. "Government has been sending the wrong message."

So the message AJ is sending is -- you guessed it -- C-H-A-N-G-E. He wants to change the way we deal with crime and criminals, revamp our education system, dismantle the welfare colossus and promote economic development and job creation. And the way he sees it, they're all interlocking parts of the American sinkhole.

American Joe also sees himself not as Democratic politician but as a fresh-faced businessman who ran the family tavern until, at the age of 44, he resigned to run for governor.

Will his touchy-feely ethnic message of hard work and individual responsibility play outside of East Baltimore? Just recently, at AJ's first fund-raiser, 132 high rollers bet $1,000 each that it will. He has back-to-back fund-raisers on January 10 ($250 per) and January 11 ($150 per) just before the General Assembly convenes on January 12. While other Democrats are reaching for $3 million campaign jackpots, American Joe believes he can be a winner with about half that amount.

American Joe Miedusiewski. Say it a few times and it kind of grows on you. And that's exactly what AJ's counting on. If name recognition means anything in politics, American Joe's already ahead by a syllable or two.

Frank DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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