Politicians are set to walk the walk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wearing matching red-and-white shirts, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and first lady Kendel Ehrlich are known to hold up marching bands while they give hugs to their supporters.

To shake hands and talk to voters, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley likes to get out of his car. And Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger never wants to get into one.

If you are, were or want to be elected in the state of Maryland, July 4 is the day to march.

With thousands lining the streets of towns from Dundalk to Annapolis, Fourth of July parades have become "see and be seen" political events, especially in the Baltimore area, where the neighborhood parades are timed so politicians can attend all of them. In an election year expected to be among the state's most contentious, the parades are seen as a chance to meet and greet the voters when they're relaxed and happy.

"It's retail politics," says Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "It gives people an intimate encounter with their elected officials. Their kids are there. Their pets are there."

Also, it's important for voters to see their officials, Walker says.

"It emphasizes the old adage: 'All politics are local,'" he says.

Some politicians are famous for their shows of patriotic community pride.

Hyman A. Pressman, Baltimore's longtime comptroller who died in 1996, was a "band of one," says McDaniel College political science professor and political consultant Herbert C. Smith.

Pressman would strut like a drum major, race up and down the street, smile, wave and blow kisses.

Former state Comptroller Louis L. "God bless y'all real good" Goldstein tried to march in as many as he could, reaching legendary status on the parade circuit, Smith says.

And Ruppersberger, who never saw a snowplow he didn't want to drive or a ribbon he didn't want to cut, is known for his love of Fourth of July parades.

"The parades energize me," says Ruppersberger. "I liked them when I was a councilman. I liked them when I was county executive. And I like them even more now."

Because he spends a lot of time in Washington and on overseas trips, Ruppersberger says he looks forward to any event that gets him back in his district and talking to people. "I jump out of the car as soon as I can," he says.

But it's not easy racing from one parade to the next, says Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive who for years attended all five of the big county parades. "By the time you get to Catonsville, your head's spinning," he says.

Opinions differ about how much a parade appearance means to a campaign. On one hand, it's months before anyone casts a ballot, and as they breeze by crowds of people, candidates don't have much opportunity to bring up issues. On the other hand, they have a chance to see many voters in a short time. Towson's parade regularly draws 75,000 to 80,000 people. In Catonsville, where people have been setting up lawn chairs for more than a week, about 20,000 people attend.

"From a party standpoint, we try to take advantage of the crowds to register voters and recruit volunteers," says John Gibson, executive director of Maryland's Republican Party.

Walker points out that the Fourth of July also happens to be the day after the filing deadline for candidates seeking office. "It's a great opportunity to showcase your candidates because who is running has been finalized," says Walker.

Ehrlich will walk in more than a half-dozen parades and will be represented in about 20 statewide, according to Shareese N. DeLeaver, his campaign spokeswoman.

Kendel Ehrlich and their children will join the governor for several parades. The governor also likes to bring his parents when possible, DeLeaver says.

Ehrlich's newly announced choice for lieutenant governor, Kristen Cox, is also expected to join him for some of the parades.

"He always walks," says DeLeaver. To the chagrin of those behind him, DeLeaver says, the governor often stops to talk to people, "sometimes for minutes at a time."

O'Malley, who is running for governor, is in Fourth of July parades almost from sunrise to sunset, beginning 8 a.m. in Dundalk. His running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, will join him for several of the events, says Hari Sevugan, spokesman for O'Malley's campaign.

After Dundalk, O'Malley, his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, and their children plan to head to Towson, Arbutus, Catonsville and Annapolis.

O'Malley has no qualms about marching in the governor's hometown. He has participated in the Arbutus parade in the past, Sevugan says.

To avoid clashes between contenders, parade organizers say they follow strict protocol when they create the lineup. "It's federal, state, county and then want-to-bes," says Lil Tirshman, one of the organizers of the Dundalk Heritage Festival and parade.

Catonsville's parade is the strictest about politicking.

No one can wear campaign shirts or pass out campaign material. Event organizers watch for candidates who break the rules. O'Malley, for example, will be marching with the local Democratic central committee, says DyAnn Moree, co-chair of the parade committee. "We don't want it to become a political rally," Moree says. "We want it to be a fun neighborhood parade."

Organizers say they schedule their start times so marching bands can get from one parade to the next. The staggered starts are a bonus for politicians who want to attend all the events.

"The Beltway gets pretty crowded with candidates rushing from one parade to the next," says Sushant Sidh, spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' campaign for state comptroller.

Owens makes her debut this year at the Dundalk parade.

It is widely considered a "must," according to Sidh and other political consultants and candidates. If you participate in no other, show up at Dundalk's.

Because it draws thousands of current and former residents, as well as relatives from other parts of the state, the parade is great for exposure, says Smith, the McDaniel College professor.

More than 20 current officials -- from U.S. senators to Baltimore County's register of wills -- and at least that many candidates will march in the 8 a.m. parade.

Campaign officials dismiss the idea that the cheers along the parade route are a barometer of support. Baltimore County political veterans say that while most people are polite, if not welcoming, a boo or two shouldn't bother a candidate.

"One year, everyone will cheer you. The next, you'll hear one loud guy screaming," says Ruppersberger. "It's similar to community meetings."

Donald Royston, a Glyndon native and founder of several Baltimore antique car clubs, says that between 1962 and 1996, when he moved to Florida, he drove in parades for just about every major politician and beauty queen in Maryland.

He says you can tell something about a politician's popularity by how well he or she is received in a parade. "The first few hundred yards sets the tone," Royston says. "You can feel it."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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