When you think about it, name recognition in business and politics is really a double-edged sword. If the name is golden, or even brass-plated, it can open doors and take you places. But a widely recognized name can also cause people to question you harder — or in a different way — than they might a newcomer. They might even hold your name against you.
Take Jon Cardin in the campaign for Maryland attorney general.
With Maryland's primary election just two weeks from now, he's enjoying a fat lead in the latest Baltimore Sun poll over his Democratic primary opponents, Brian Frosh and Aisha Braveboy. But a lot of people are grumbling because they think Cardin's lead is totally undeserved, based solely on his name.
This is coming chiefly from supporters of Frosh, an intelligent, experienced and respected state senator from Montgomery County.
Three former legislators, all importantly from Cardin's neck of the woods, have gone out of their way to endorse Frosh and dismiss Cardin.
The trio includes Mickey Steinberg, the former Senate president who was lieutenant governor in the Schaefer years, and former state senators Barbara Hoffman and Paula Hollinger — each well regarded by their constituents in Baltimore and Baltimore County.
Along with Baltimore City Councilwoman Rikki Spector, the group released a letter calling Cardin's record as a state delegate "lackluster" and criticizing his attendance in Annapolis.
"We are writing this letter because we feel the public may be confused about the name and credentials of one of the candidates for this office," the letter said.
"That person is Jon Cardin, who is the nephew of U.S. Senator Ben Cardin. Jon Cardin has had a lackluster career in the state legislature.
"It was recently revealed [in The Baltimore Sun] that he missed 75 percent of the votes in the committee on which he sits. His only explanation was that he had family obligations. The state legislature only meets for three months a year. What will he do if elected to the office of attorney general, which is a full-time, 52-week position?"
Jon Cardin responded by calling the letter "political theater . . . my opponent's supporters desperately scrambling to help their candidate who lags in the polls."
As he has done before, Jon Cardin defended his committee record, saying he never missed a critical vote and that he was absent to be home with this pregnant wife and young daughter.
"What these shortsighted [former] legislators are missing," he said, "is that we have serious issues like protection of consumers, of children and of the environment that should be discussed for the sake of the state's well being and NOT the private concerns of my wife and her rocky first trimester of pregnancy."
Of course, Jon Cardin is the one who brought up "private concerns" to explain his public record. And providing specifics, especially regarding his wife's pregnancy, was a way of neutralizing critics or appealing to sympathies. It might even explain why a bewildering 5 percent of Marylanders in the Sun poll said Cardin's voting record made them "more likely" to vote for him as AG.
Let's return to the name business.
Obviously, Jon Cardin benefits from name recognition. But what's he supposed to do about that?
His family started its long, respectable run in Maryland politics and legal affairs before he was born.
Jon Cardin's uncle, Ben, is a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and congressman; he is serving his second term as a senator. Ben's brother, Howard Cardin, was once state's attorney in Baltimore; he's had a long career as a lawyer here. Meyer Cardin was Ben's and Howard's father. He served in the General Assembly, too, and for years was a judge on Baltimore's old Supreme Bench, which is now the Circuit Court.
Meyer's brother, Maurice Cardin, served in the House of Delegates years ago. Ben succeeded him in the 1960s — and I'm sure having the same last name didn't hurt at the time.
Is Jon Cardin the leading candidate for attorney general because of the Cardin name?
Yes, mostly. (He also got a lot of media attention this past year for sponsoring legislation to criminalize so-called "revenge porn," an issue of dubious significance to most Marylanders.)
Whether they do it intentionally or not, whether they acknowledge it or not, people use their golden family names — and the networks that develop from them — to get ahead in politics and business, in life generally.
What I say next will sound like a civics lesson, but here goes: The responsibility to discern what matters is with the voter.
Attorney general is an important position. "The office is, of course, dear to my heart," says Steve Sachs, who served as AG in the 1970s and '80s. "It has a lot more to do with shaping state policy, if in the right hands, than most voters realize."
There is a huge undecided block in the Sun poll.
That means voters have some homework to do before June 24. That means looking beyond what's in a name.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.