City primary a clash of famous last names

The Baltimore Sun

Paul S. Sarbanes, the recently retired U.S. senator, has been spotted at the Waverly Farmers' Market stumping for his son.

Dr. Nina Rawlings' voice reverberates on the radio, recalling the impact of her late husband, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, on their daughter.

And City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. invokes his uncle, Maryland's first African-American congressman, in a television ad for his mayoral candidacy.

Familiar last names abound among many of the leading candidates in this year's city elections, and experts say it's not hard to figure out why: Voters feel more comfortable electing newcomers whose relatives they've put into public office.

Nowhere is this more evident than in this summer's Democratic primary battle for City Council president.

In many ways, the race has evolved into a clash between the son and daughter of two revered public officials whose public service left a lifetime imprint across Baltimore.

Michael Sarbanes, who most recently served as director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, is the son of Paul Sarbanes, the longest-serving senator in Maryland's history. The younger Sarbanes is making his first run for citywide office

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, the daughter of the late delegate who headed the state's powerful Appropriations Committee, was elected to the City Council in 1995. She was elected City Council president by her colleagues in January, making this her first public campaign for president.

The two are the front-runners among four candidates in the Sept. 11 primary.

Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and author of America's Political Dynasties: From Adams to Kennedy, said political dynasties are increasingly surfacing across the country.

If Michael Sarbanes wins the race, the Sarbanes family will officially have what he terms a "dynasty" -- three or more family members having served in office.

"It's very interesting in a sociological and historical sense," said Hess. "It seems to me that Americans are more interested than ever in having their politicians branded. As they get more suspicious of politicians in general, they'd just as soon have one that they're familiar with."

Hess said Maryland and Baltimore voters seem especially inclined to support relatives of known elected officials. From the Mitchell family (three generations have served in elected office) to the current speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the daughter of former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. (Pelosi's brother also served as Baltimore's mayor.)

Another interesting thing, Hess said, is the prevalence of nonwhite dynasties, which is increasing across the country. "This is part of something that is larger than just two dynasties running against each other," he said.

Also running in the primary are City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Charles Ulysses Smith, a frequent candidate.

Sarbanes and Rawlings-Blake were virtually tied in a poll conducted for The Sun last month, which also found a large number of undecided voters.

They are close in fundraising, as well. Sarbanes has outraised Rawlings-Blake by nearly $40,000 and has a slight edge in cash on hand, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state last week.

Experts say Sarbanes and Rawlings-Blake will benefit from their fathers' reputations.

"They should have huge name recognition," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Pete Rawlings had, up until his death, probably the biggest name in the state in the black community."

And when it comes to name recognition in Maryland, nothing beats the Sarbanes name, said Lenneal J. Henderson, a professor at the University of Baltimore's School of Public Affairs. Henderson said the Sarbanes name also brings with it the kind of forces that his family and connections can bring to bear both inside and outside of the city.

"I think the Sarbanes family clearly has the edge there," said Henderson. "The Sarbanes name counts a lot in Baltimore City," among both black and white voters.

"He can generate support within the city that was formerly his dad's support and he can also generate support outside the city, which is important," said Henderson.

Sarbanes' family connections can be seen most clearly in his campaign contributions. Half came from outside Maryland, 64 percent from outside Baltimore City.

Many of his contributors, especially those out of state, have surnames that appear to be of Greek origin. Sarbanes' father and his brother, recently elected U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes, both tapped into the Greek-American community for support during their campaigns.

The candidates profess deep pride in their names and the legacies associated with them, though they play down the suggestion that they could garner extra votes based solely on family roots.

But experts say a name can be the thing to beat. U.S. Rep. John P. Sarbanes won the 3rd District congressional seat last year in a highly competitive primary despite his lack of political experience.

And voters frequently point to the candidates' fathers as reasons to vote for one or another.

"Paul Sarbanes was an excellent politician," said Nealette Renee Cooper, 38, a nurse's assistant who said she was leaning toward voting for Michael Sarbanes. "The name just carries a lot of clout. So that draws me to him, truthfully."

Faouly A. Umoja said he'll likely vote for Rawlings-Blake. Why?

"Out of loyalty to his family," said Umoja, 60. "Me and Pete Rawlings, we're friends for a long time. I knew him from politics. I knew his daughter when she was a young girl."

Sarbanes says both his father and brother are helping him as much as they can in the campaign. His brother is knocking on doors with him and fills in at house parties the council president candidate can't attend. His father has hit the campaign trail, as well.

People invoke the retired senator's legacy when he's on the campaign trail, Sarbanes said, mentioning positive interaction. But he said people also mention work he's done in neighborhoods.

"It puts a spotlight on you and then people look at you," he said of his name.

"If they like what they see, then the light helps," he continued. "If they don't like what they see, then it won't help."

Rawlings-Blake said she believes people recognize her and her name based on her 12 years in public office. She said not a day passes where someone doesn't recall her father and the work that he did.

"The difference is," she said, "while they revere my dad and remember him fondly, they also know that I've followed in his footsteps not just because we share the last name but I've been in elected office and moving up the ranks."

"There's absolutely no way to know what people are going to cast a vote for," she added. "My hope is that people take the time to educate themselves about the issues."

Indeed, some voters say that a name alone isn't enough.

Jo Ann L. Jackson reacted positively to the Sarbanes name. "If he's anything like his father, he's good," she said.

But she quickly added, "I just don't want to vote for Sarbanes because of his name. I want to know what he's going to do."

Political opponents acknowledge the name factor -- and work to remind voters that they're voting for the person on the ballot, not the candidate's father.

Harris, for one, says he's not worried about the effect of name recognition. "My two opponents will do as much as they can to maximize their fathers' names, that's my guess," said Harris. "But it's not about legacy and entitlement.".

"I have a record," he added. "I'm running on issues. Not on a name."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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