By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006
On Ash Wednesday in Annapolis, everybody was talking about the miracle of the senator who came to the aid of his political rival.
CNN and "Good Morning America" came calling, colleagues joked about legislatively issued defibrillators, senators gave each other fake Heimlich maneuvers. There was even some lively discussion about a new kind of campaign ethics: Is it all right to run against someone who (maybe) saved your life?
In the center of the frenzy was Maryland Sen. John A. Giannetti (D-Prince George's), a boyish-looking freshman from Laurel who -- until he helped dislodge a hunk of fish from his competitor's throat Monday night -- was fast becoming known as the guy whose miscues landed him a serious challenge from a well-funded and experienced candidate within his own party.
That candidate, former delegate Jim Rosapepe, had the unlikely fate of stumbling into Giannetti just as he choked on his seafood fra diavolo at an Annapolis trattoria.
"With one thrust," observed Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), "Giannetti saved Jim's life, and his own campaign."
If that moment was an episode of good luck, said Pinsky and others, fortune seemed to be shining more vibrantly on Giannetti.
Giannetti, 41, beamed as the burst of publicity swept in. He estimated that he had done a dozen TV interviews by midafternoon, and said a stack of requests was piled high in his Senate office.
In one interview, the senator laughed with a reporter about the awkward moment after the hunk of fish landed on the floor and Rosapepe caught his breath.
"I told him to make sure he chewed all his food next time," he said.
In another, he turned more serious, declaring himself "thankful to God that I was there. The fact that he was one of my critics, it didn't matter at all."
Rosapepe, too, had to contend with the cameras. He tried -- at times gamely -- to sound magnanimous, telling the assembled news crews, "It was a lucky day, in that I was okay and that he had a chance to do a good deed."
"I really appreciate John's help," Rosapepe said in a later interview, "but I didn't feel like I was in a life-threatening situation."
Rosapepe cringed at the notion that this would in some way preclude him from going after his opponent on the trail. But there were plenty who thought he may need to reconsider his strategy.
Observers including political strategists and Miss Manners thought political attacks, in this instance, would be poor form.
"To try and vilify someone personally who has just been heroic would seem to me not only extremely rude but unproductive," opined Judith Martin, who pens the Miss Manners advice column.
Kevin Igoe, a political strategist who works mostly with Republicans, said he believes Rosapepe is in a bind, because negative attacks are a staple of an intra-party primary challenge. "You can't attack the guy who just saved your life," he said.
Rosapepe, 54, who is on the Maryland university system's Board of Regents, yesterday made it clear that this in no way would shake him off his game plan. "I think it's a great human-interest story, but elections are about who can do the best job for the voters, who can represent the voters' values."
He told reporters he still sees this as a race about Giannetti's opposition to the assault weapons ban and the smoking ban. "Those are the issues in the campaign -- not a dead fish," Rosapepe said.
He didn't mention the series of gaffes that have plagued the senator's freshman term in office, none more memorable than the June 2004 news release he sent to more than 60 reporters upon returning from his honeymoon in Greece.
The headline read, "Senator and Mrs. Giannetti Return from Honeymoon Rested," and over the next eight paragraphs, Giannetti served up details, such as: "The local island residents reportedly enjoyed Erin's bikinis much more than John's black Speedo."
Similar flashes of questionable judgment and taste -- and there have been several -- have made the Prince George's Democrat the target of some nasty attacks, including a Web site calling him Senator Speedo.
He lost support from members of the College Park City Council after throwing tailgate parties that mixed students and alcohol, for which he later apologized.
Giannetti said he believes the choking incident could help erase what he agrees has been a run of bad publicity. "Those were things people may not understand because they have not met me," he said yesterday. "It's nice to finally receive recognition for something I got done that was positive."
The episode inspired not just recognition, but a fair amount of amusement in Annapolis yesterday.
At Galway Bay, an Irish pub across the street from the State House, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sneaked up on a fellow Prince George's delegate finishing lunch and performed a mock Heimlich.
"Everybody's talking about it," Miller (D) said of the Rosapepe-Giannetti encounter. "It's such an amazing coincidence that, one, it's Rosapepe and, two, that it's Giannetti and, three, that Giannetti knew what to do!"
Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's) cautioned Giannetti to have no expectation that his Heimlich maneuver will mean an easier campaign.
Green recalled a time 20 years ago when he was holding a reception on the Harbor Queen, a party boat moored at Annapolis harbor, and a woman slipped off the gangway into the frigid water.
He and former Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. dived in and rescued her. Later that year, Green said, the woman turned up to endorse his opponent.
Green said he learned an important lesson: "It's politics," he said. "Incidents like that are fast forgotten."
Staff writers Robert Barnes, Susan Kinzie and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.