For years, he was the state senator with too many letters in his name to attempt pronunciation, the guy who ran a Canton bar with 75-cent Natty Boh on tap and a quarter-a-game pool table -- a "must" stop for Democratic pols wooing the East Baltimore vote.
But nearly 10 months ago, American Joe Miedusiewski donned a statesman's blue suit, climbed into his leased Lincoln Town Car and began criss-crossing Maryland to convince voters he was a serious candidate for governor.
Since then, Mr. Miedusiewski, 44, and his 30-year-old campaign manager, James Brochin, have been waging a street-smart, old-fashioned bid for governor -- an operation run on a shoestring, mostly out of the trunk of the car.
They are trying to make real the improbable dream of putting a tavern manager with a lackluster legislative record on the second floor of the Maryland State House.
the stump, Mr. Miedusiewski (pronounced Med-a-SHEF-ski) attempts to set himself apart from other Democrats in the Sept. 13 primary by taking a conservative tack. He pledges a small businessman's approach to cutting government and creating jobs, and says he would champion tough new sentencing and welfare laws.
He is a tireless campaigner who listens to voter concerns with the keen ear and patience of a bar-keep. And though his dark-horse candidacy seems to hold an unlikely payoff -- he was running third in a poll released this week -- voters across the state who meet him often are impressed.
"He's genuinely interested in hearing from people," said David C. Smith, who owns a tennis and racket club in Allegany County, near the West Virginia border.
Mr. Smith met the candidate while he was on a sweep through Western Maryland in June. He said this week that he still plans to back Mr. Miedusiewski, partly because of his message to small business.
"He has his own ideas, but he's willing to take information back from us and incorporate it," Mr. Smith said.
But the image Mr. Miedusiewski portrays as a conservative Democrat is sometimes at odds with his legislative record.
For instance, though he says he would be a friend to business as governor, he has a career rating of just 55 percent from Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a pro-business group. As a candidate for governor during this year's legislative session, Mr. Miedusiewski apparently found the group's positions more compelling, earning an 80 percent rating.
He has also been a stalwart supporter of organized labor over the years, consistently winning high marks from unions, reflective of his working-class constituency.
Mr. Miedusiewski has introduced little statewide legislation, a point he readily concedes. He points mainly to the bill that created the Maryland Film Commission, which he views as an economic development initiative.
There's no mistaking, when you look down the list of bills that I've introduced, most of them are local bills," he said. "I was a local legislator. I passionately represented my district."
He says voters should judge him now for his proposals as a statewide candidate.
Indeed, many Miedusiewski watchers say he has stepped smoothly this year from the back bench of the Senate to become a force at the gubernatorial plate.
"He's done a much better job at running for governor and campaigning for higher political office than he has as a state senator," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.
Mr. Miller, who has wavered in his choice of a gubernatorial candidate, forked over $1,000 to help Mr. Miedusiewski early on while also supporting Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg. He is leaning toward the front-runner in the race, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening.
Still, Mr. Miller gives high marks to Mr. Miedusiewski's candidacy.
"He's moved himself to great heights in his campaign," Mr. Miller said recently.
"He has a very polished presentation, is very articulate on issues. There is not a person who's seen the candidates debate in person . . . who has not been impressed by American Joe Miedusiewski."
One person who has not been impressed is Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. Mr. DeMarco faults Mr. Miedusiewski for doing a flip-flop on the assault pistol ban enacted by the legislature this year.
Mr. DeMarco says he thought the group had Mr. Miedusiewski's support when he appeared with other city legislators at a MAHA news conference in January.
Within days, however, Mr. Miedusiewski wrote a letter saying he was still undecided.
Two months later, the measure came before the Senate committee on which he sits, Economic and Environmental Affairs, through a parliamentary maneuver aimed at keeping the legislation from being killed by another panel.
Mr. Miedusiewski voted against the bill, calling his action a protest of the breach in Senate rules. But he said he would support the measure on the Senate floor -- an assertion he repeated on a radio talk show the next night.
He changed his mind. When the bill came before the full Senate for preliminary and final votes, Mr. Miedusiewski voted no each time.
"I was uninformed about gun issues," Mr. Miedusiewski sailater. After the committee vote, he said he read more about both sides and came down "empathizing with the people out there who feel they are being imposed upon by government."
Mr. DeMarco is not persuaded. "I do not know why Mr. Miedusiewski has abandoned his pro-gun control principles, but if he did so for political reasons, he made a bad miscalculation," Mr. DeMarco said. "Eighty percent of Marylanders favor our comprehensive gun control plan."
The candidate was born Joseph Francis Miedusiewski, the son of a lieutenant in an old eastside Democratic machine. His parents still own American Joe's tavern, a corner bar not unlike scores of others in the city, complete with Keno and a poker machine.
Mr. Miedusiewski, who lives in a brick rowhouse not far from the bar, was named after his Polish immigrant grandfather. But in 1974, he legally changed his name to American Joe -- which neighbors and bar patrons had called both his grandfather and father before him.
As the story goes, his father, Francis Joseph, narrowly lost an election because voters did not recognize his real name on the ballot. To avoid that, the youngest American Joe made the change and has not lost since winning his House of Delegates seat in 1974.
Senate seat was his 14 years later when, in 1988, the district's incumbent senator died in office and Mr. Miedusiewski was named the successor. He decided to give up his safe seat based partly on encouragement from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was urging others to get into the governor's race as well.
Mr. Miedusiewski chose as his running mate state Sen. Bernie Fowler, a conservative Southern Marylander with environmental credentials who had not planned to seek re-election. Mr. Fowler, 70, has been deployed on his home turf and the Eastern Shore to drum up support from Maryland's scattered rural vote.
The campaign has been hamstrung by a lack of money, raising just $480,000 so far, compared to a hefty $3 million by Mr. Glendening and $1.7 million by Mr. Steinberg. Even the fourth-place candidate, state Sen. Mary H. Boergers of Montgomery County, raised $578,000.
Mr. Miedusiewski has used his money largely for a series of hard-hitting radio ads criticizing Mr. Glendening. Mr. Miedusiewski has drawn sharp criticism for the last of the spots, which, by the senator's own assessment, "went right to the edge."
The ad claimed, in part, that Mr. Glendening raised "sales taxes" as county executive and that "he cut the public school budget." Within hours of the commercial's airing, the Glendening campaign issued a statement branding the spot "full of outrageous, blatant lies."
In fact, the sales tax is set by state government, not the counties. And the Prince George's school budget rose steadily on Mr. Glendening's watch, fueled by increases in county contributions and even larger increases in state aid.
Mr. Miedusiewski says the sales tax reference was meant to refer to Mr. Glendening's imposition of a tax on home energy use, such as gas and electric bills.
As for the education claim, Mr. Miedusiewski says his point was that the percentage of the school budget coming from county funds decreased over the years.
"I know we're pushing the outside of the envelope, but that's what it takes," he said.
, Tomorrow: Ellen R. Sauerbrey
AMERICAN JOE MIEDUSIEWSKI
Home: East Baltimore
Family: Wife, Patricia. No children.
Education: B.A., history, University of Baltimore.
Experience: Maryland House of Delegates, 1975-1988. Maryland Senate, 1988-present. Manager, family-owned tavern.
POSITIONS ON ISSUES:
Taxes/budget: Says he has no plans to raise taxes and would do so only as a last resort. Would address projected budget shortfall by reducing the size of government by at least 2 percent. Has promised state workers to reduce their workweek from 40 hours to 35.5 hours, reversing a budget policy implemented by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Economic development: Wants to increase the number of manufacturing jobs, particularly in urban and rural areas where there has been a decline in industry. Proposes marketing the state's vacant factories and warehouses, using tax credits as incentives for companies to locate in them. Would retrain workers in the community college system.
Crime: Would eliminate parole for repeat violent offenders. Would build an additional 1,400- to 1,700-cell prison and apply for federal waiver to double-cell. Would pay for it using money set aside for National Football League stadium in Baltimore, refinancing of bonds used to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards, revenues from three instant lotteries, and money from Rainy Day Fund. Would provide drug and alcohol treatment for first-time nonviolent offenders. Supports the death penalty.
Gun control: Voted against Maryland's ban on the sale of assault pistols. Does not favor additional regulation. "Lock up the criminals, not the guns."
Abortion: Voted against 1991 bill aimed at protecting the right to abortion, but since its approval in 1992 referendum, has pledged to protect the statute. Would consider lifting current restrictions on Medicaid-funded abortions for poor women provided that his welfare reform proposal -- limiting benefits for new applicants to two children per family -- became law.
Schools: Says schools should be held more accountable for results. Would continue current Department of Education reforms, including state takeover of failing schools. Supports teacher recertification. Wants "increased funding of schools, to the extent that the state can afford it." Over time, would target more aid to poor jurisdictions, but only for schools that are performing well.