In Name Of Father, Sons Run

Jeb Bush joins race for Florida governor, and three heirs vie for Minnesota's top job.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They've been dubbed "My Three Sons": Skip Humphrey, Ted Mondale, and Mike Freeman, all sons of Democratic Party titans, all running for governor of Minnesota.

The election isn't until November 1998, but that hasn't prevented the national media from rushing to the North Star State to follow the three around, drawing the inevitable comparisons with their famous fathers, ex-vice presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, and Orville Freeman, a three-term governor and former Agriculture secretary.

The sons, frankly, are rather tired of the whole subject, their campaigns report. But the complaints ring a bit hollow. Membership in a famous political family is worth its weight in gold - literally.

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If your surname is Bush, Jackson, or Kennedy, you're immediately a top candidate. The echo-chamber of political credibility kicks in: The media pay attention to you, funders open their checkbooks, voters know who you are.

And as campaigns nationwide gear up, including the 2000 race for president, the next generation of famous-name political players is finding that the name can offer a crucial boost.

"It's a blessing and a curse," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The blessing is that you have name recognition - the most important quality in a race. The curse is expectations: Are you as good as Papa?"

At this point, for Hubert Horatio Humphrey III, better known as Skip, the curse may outweigh the blessing. When he entered politics 15 years ago, the name helped. But now he has his own record as Minnesota's long-time attorney general. But he faces constant comparison to his father.

The younger Mr. Humphrey lost a 1988 bid for US Senate. True, he faced a popular incumbent, but when voters looked at Skip, they saw a less charismatic version of his father, says Professor Schier. "It's tough being compared to one of the great senators of the 20th century."

Ted Mondale, by comparison, comes to the governor's race with only six years as a state legislator. But by June, he was second in name recognition only to Humphrey among all gubernatorial hopefuls from both parties.

Richard Reeves, a biographer of President Kennedy, sees mainly an up side to having a famous name. Members of political families, he says, "have a brand name ... which gets you attention and a reservoir of past feeling, probably most of it positive."

When Rep. Joe Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, scion of the first family of American politics, ran for Congress 11 years ago, he was seen as "a big grin with blue eyes - a dilettante trading on the family name," says "Politics in America 1998." But now he is seen as a "serious practitioner of the policymaking art." Then the darker side of Kennedy fame surfaced: troubles with women. Joe's ex-wife wrote a devastating book about their marriage annulment. Brother Michael had an alleged affair with a babysitter. Last month Joe bowed out of the Massachusetts governor's race.

But, says Mr. Reeves, Joe Kennedy - who still has his seat in Congress - may be back. "He had to bleed a little bit, and people think that makes you human."

In addition, being a Kennedy in Massachusetts, center of the clan, solidifies his position. Sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's bid for Congress from Maryland in 1986 failed, though she is now that state's lieutenant governor.

Some political sons go further than their fathers, such as Vice President Gore and President Bush, both the sons of senators.

For now, the biggest name in the political firmament may well be Bush. Gov. George W. Bush (R) of Texas, son of ex-President Bush, is a dead ringer for his father. The younger Mr. Bush is carving out a base in Texas from which to make a possible presidential run in 2000. And his brother, Jeb, joined Florida's race for governor on Friday.

Is there something special that these children learn at their fathers' knees? Ted Mondale notes dinner-table talk on the importance of public service. Some children, such as George W. Bush, learn the ropes as advisers to their fathers.

Politics, for these children, is not some remote abstraction. It's the family business.

Mondale Son Feels Pull of 'Family Business'

As a young man, Ted Mondale seemed interested in anything but politics.

He raced motorcycles competitively. He wanted to be a professional baseball player. Eventually, he settled down, became a businessman, had a family. In the end, he felt the family pull into politics. After six years in the Minnesota legislature, Mr. Mondale - son of the former vice president - wants to be governor.

"We were taught growing up, at the dinner table, that the highest calling in your life was to serve the public," says Mondale, a "New Democrat" to his father's more-liberal version.

In his years as a state legislator, Mondale made children and families his signature issue. But he's known statewide mainly for having the name. And he's not unhappy about the help it gives him.

Last winter, Walter Mondale moved back to Minnesota after a tour as US ambassador to Japan and joined a law firm. He and Ted talk often. "He's a pretty good asset for a 40-year-old statewide office-seeker," says the son. "He's been through it all. He understands the pressures well beyond what I know." Dad's advice: Understand the issues. When you talk to voters, don't just say, "Tell me about your concerns." Do your homework.

The senior Mondale has also on occasion helped his son raise money. But Ted says he'll be surprised if even 5 percent of his money comes through his dad. Says Ted: "He did not come back from Japan to make fund-raising calls."

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