'Working families' a term for the times

THE BALTIMORE SUN

'Working families' are political focus Take a soccer mom, add a NASCAR dad, blend them together in a heated election year and what do you get?

A working family.

Working families, a deliciously ambiguous segment of society, are hands-down the most coveted demographic among candidates vying to be Maryland's next governor.

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. strives to mitigate the electric rate increases, he's doing it "for Maryland's working families."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's recent win in his lawsuit against the Public Service Commission is "a victory for working families."

And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan? He has "a plan to begin to give hard-working families the affordable health care they deserve."

The working family. So noble, so needy. So politically perfect.

As Marylanders become increasingly anxious about paying more for electricity just as they're paying more for gasoline just as they're paying more for health insurance just as interest rates rise and the stock market goes iffy, this term could be the right thing at the right time, says Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda polling company Potomac Inc. Whichever candidate lassos that angst-filled Zeitgeist, Haller thinks has the best shot of being elected governor in November.

"I can't recall an issue in modern Maryland history that has been so searingly omnipresent," Haller says of the rates scare. "Everyone is flailing about trying to be more the advocate for the working family. But to the average person, they see no one has come up with a workable approach. There's a lot of skepticism and a lot of anger."

Working families were not born overnight, though a casual observer of the political firestorm surrounding the impending electricity rate increase might think so.

Sharpened debate

The gubernatorial troika has largely boiled that debate right down to working families: Who will be their white knight? Who will save them from big, scary utility bills? Who's on their side?

Just this week, on the same day, Ehrlich and O'Malley invoked the working family as news spread that the General Assembly would meet in a special summer session to address the rates crisis.

"Due to Baltimore City's interference, more than one million Marylanders were saddled last week with an electric rate stabilization plan that includes ... no concessions whatsoever from energy companies for working families," Ehrlich's statement says.

And O'Malley's? "We will continue [the] fight for the interests of working families - not those of powerful corporations."

So who exactly is this working family that's been commanding so much airtime and newsprint? Where do they live? Where do they work? What do they look like?

"I can tell you honestly that that strikes me as one of the most meaningless phrases you can find," says Towson University rhetoric professor Richard Vatz, an outspoken Ehrlich supporter. "Who is not part of a working family except for a single person, who aspires to be?

"It's all rhetorical legerdemain."

If anyone would know who these working families are, it's the officials at Boston College's Sloan Work and Family Research Network, an organization designed to track the working families' needs.

Over at Sloan they're apparently very busy since, as they put it, everybody's a working family.

"Who isn't a working family these days?" Judi Casey, the network's director, says with a laugh. You don't have to be married, she says - you don't even have to have kids.

It's singles taking care of their aging parents, she says. It's a brother helping his sister raise her children. It's unrelated people living together.

"It's a chambermaid or a CEO or a truck driver or a teacher," Casey says. "If you stop 10 people on the street and say, 'Are you a working family?' I think you'd get a pretty good hit rate of, 'Yeah, that's me.'"

Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg recalls when "working family" used to mean "working class" or, more bluntly, poor people. But she knows that's not who the politicians are talking about now.

"To me, this is aimed not at people who can't pay their bills but at people who are going to have a little bit harder of a time paying their bills," she says, beginning to parrot a candidate's bravado: "These people are working for themselves, trying to make a living - we want to help them. We're on your side, we know how hard you work and we want to help."

Hirschburg has noticed local candidates using the term with increasing frequency. With the knowing tone of someone who's been around a few campaigns, she dryly adds, "I would have to believe it has something to do with the demographics."

Haller would have to agree.

It's all about the so-called Reagan Democrats, he says, Democrats who in tough economic times can be persuaded to vote Republican. They're out there and all three gubernatorial candidates want to find them.

Fear and anger

They're plentiful enough in the suburbs that ring Baltimore to swing an election - as Ehrlich found to his benefit in 2002. Haller thinks people's fear and anger over the rates situation has made these voters malleable again.

"When the economy goes south, the working-family audience ends up going one way or the other," he says. "You can rest assured that below the surface, the political players for all the gubernatorial candidates are focused on this likely audience."

The candidates and their teams, of course, acknowledge nothing of the kind. And, interestingly enough, they come up with strikingly similar, strikingly broad definitions for the otherwise undefinable term.

"Working families are families that work hard and play by the rules but find it more and more difficult to make ends meet," says O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

Ehrlich knows exactly what a working family is because he grew up in one, says Henry Fawell, his spokesman. The dad sold cars. The mom was a legal secretary. They called Arbutus home.

"In the governor's mind, it applies to hard-working families who play by the rules and who use every penny they have to the betterment of their family, their kids and their community," Fawell says.

Though Duncan spokeswoman Jody Couser says the term refers "to families who may be living from paycheck to paycheck," the O'Malley and Ehrlich teams are much more hesitant to get any more specific about where these families live or how much they earn.

"It applies to everybody," Fawell says, while Abbruzzese demures: "We talk to everybody."

While candidates might be trying - or not - to target suburban swing voters with all their working-family talk, the beauty of the phrase, its political genius, is that even the untargeted assume the candidates are speaking to them.

Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist, says the term "working families" has a way of reflecting the image of those who hear it. Lower class, middle class, upper class, blue-collar, white-collar sees themselves as a working family.

"People understand what it means," he says. "It means them."

To Vatz, the concept of the working family is nothing more than an empty political calorie, junk food that the masses might mistake for a substantial meal.

He challenges anyone to find a scenario where it wouldn't be helpful "to do it for working families."

"You want to give more money to the military?" he says. "You do it to protect working families. You want to give less money to the military? You do it because you need to give more to working families."

He concludes with almost a sigh: "There is so much empty sentimentalism that pulls at the heartstrings of America."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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