By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
When Democrat Brian Moran recently assembled top elected officials in Arlington County to announce that they were endorsing him for Virginia governor, one notable figure was absent: his older brother, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr.
It's not that Jim Moran is supporting someone else. After representing the inner suburbs of Washington for almost two decades, he is one of his little brother's greatest political assets -- offering money, renown, a large political organization and the soft shoulder of family to lean on.
But some say Jim Moran, 63, is also a liability to his brother's statewide ambitions, bringing the baggage of a liberal voting record and a long history of impolitic behavior in a state that typically values reserve and tradition. As a result, the younger Moran enters one of the most-watched political contests in the nation this year with the tricky task of embracing his famous brother at some moments and distancing himself at others. That contradiction could become a make-or-break challenge in a tense three-way primary against former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), where the slightest boost -- or burden -- could decide the outcome.
"The only way the relationship hurts is if people make conclusions about me based on my brother's positions," Brian Moran, 49, said, noting that he and his brother have differed on a variety of issues. "I mean, I gotta win this on my own."
That has meant taking such awkward steps as not including his brother in the Arlington endorsement event. It has meant repeatedly reaching out to Jewish leaders who were outraged by Jim's remarks blaming the pro-Israel lobby for the country's war with Iraq. It has meant emphasizing his own more conservative record, including votes in favor of gun rights and the abolition of parole.
Unlike a bid for Congress, running for statewide office has always held pitfalls for Northern Virginians, who must balance the more progressive demands of the Washington suburbs with the more conservative tendencies in the rest of the state. Few Northerners have won without pledging strong support for the death penalty, gun rights and tough criminal laws -- positions that find more support outside the D.C. suburbs.
"His emphasis is on what's best for this commonwealth," said Jim Moran, who went to great lengths in an interview to distinguish his brother's record from his own. "He has a very open-minded view on cultural issues, but he respects the differences in the state."
The Moran brothers share an upbringing (and an unmistakable Massachusetts accent) straight from the pages of Irish American lore. Their grandparents met on the boat during their Atlantic crossing in 1901. They grew up in Natick, Mass., a working-class community west of Boston. The high school stadium was built by the Works Progress Administration -- an apt shrine for a family that worshiped hard work, football and the New Deal. The oldest and youngest of seven children in the spare household of a probation officer, Jim and Brian lived by this mantra: If you were old enough to ride a bike, you were old enough to earn a paycheck.
In many ways, Brian has followed that family fiat, but not always by choice. In 1973, fresh from eighth grade, Brian, just 13, was packed onto a train by his parents for Washington to spend the summer watching and learning from the Watergate hearings. He stayed in an apartment in the Normandy Hill area of Alexandria with his brother, Jim, 15 years older and working as a financial manager for the federal government.
Much later, when the Morans' father grew ill, it fell to Brian to move home and care for his parents. The experience became a source of resentment toward his older siblings, including Jim, but also a point of pride. Although compelled home by obligation, through the experience of juggling work, home duties and classes at a state college, Brian also gained a sense of identity apart from his siblings.
Brian Moran often tells a story about Thanksgiving spent with his large family. "The turkey would start out with my dad, who played football for the [Boston] Redskins," he said. "Then the turkey would be passed to Jim, who went to Holy Cross to play football. Then the turkey would be passed to John, who went to Utah State to play football. Then it would be passed to Kevin, who was a standout at the University of Massachusetts as a football player. And then it went to Paul, who played football at Boston College."
He pauses. "And then the turkey came to me." He smiles. "And you wonder why I stay thin!"
Brian learned to survive on political scraps as well -- but also to forage on his own. As a state delegate from 1996 until last year representing Alexandria and a tiny corner of Fairfax County, he has lived quite literally in Jim's shadow. Jim Moran has served Virginia's 8th District since 1991, and he is an institution in the state's two most progressive communities, Arlington and Alexandria. His congressional district entirely encompasses the area Brian represented. Even in appearance, Brian is a shadow of his brother: a younger, trimmer, uncannily similar model -- but without the blaze of white hair or bushy eyebrows.
"I love your dad, too!" a supporter exclaimed recently at an Alexandria restaurant, obviously meaning Jim.
Brian is young enough to have been guided by his brother like a son, yet also young enough to have been far removed from Jim's life in Alexandria, which began in 1968.
Brian spent college breaks in Alexandria, helping Jim campaign for City Council. He moved to Washington to attend law school at Catholic University, worked briefly for Congress, then launched a career as a prosecutor in Arlington. As he started down the path toward public office, he began to move away, on some issues, from his brother's more liberal record. In the House of Delegates, Brian supported then-Gov. George Allen's effort to eliminate parole; he also became a booster for gun rights. The brothers share advocacy of abortion rights, civil rights and state funding for schools and social services, but there are contrasts; Jim is known as a partisan fighter and earned an "F" from the National Rifle Association.
"I'm a good friend of Jim's," said L.F. Payne, a conservative Democrat who served with Jim Moran in Congress and is supporting Brian for governor. "But I see Brian as a very thoughtful, moderate guy who really can be very effective, not only for the area he served in Northern Virginia but for people across the state."
Jim Moran has a political organization that he is more than happy to share with his brother. He has also contributed $50,000 to his brother's campaign. And with almost $600,000 in the bank as of last fall and no limits on how much more he can give under federal and Virginia laws, Jim is likely to write another check or two.
If anything, the congressman's liberal voting record and his efforts on behalf of federal workers should help his brother in the Democratic primary as he runs to the left of rivals McAuliffe and Deeds. But that record could quickly become a drag if he reaches the general election.
Perhaps the toughest challenge he faces is not outrunning his older brother's political record but distancing himself from Jim's gaffes. Jim has earned unfavorable attention over the years for shoving another congressman on the floor of the House, scuffling with an 8-year-old boy in Alexandria who pretended to point a gun at Moran while trying to snatch his keys, and supporting a bankruptcy reform bill after accepting a favorable home equity loan from a lender. Most spectacularly, he blamed the pro-Israel lobby and "the Jewish community" for pushing the country to war with Iraq, earning the enmity of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Even President Obama, when Jim Moran endorsed him last year, issued a statement distancing himself from Moran's remarks about Jews.
"I don't think there has been a member of Congress who has said worse things about Jewish values and the Jewish community than Jim Moran," said Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim congregation in Alexandria.
Jim Moran blames himself for the negative public perceptions that his brother has registered in some recent political surveys. Yet Brian Moran credits his brother for the widespread name recognition that those polls also capture. And not everyone assumes guilt by association: Moline, for instance, has endorsed Brian.
Brian Moran is also quick, at times, to stand by his brother's side. He did that at Jim Moran's worst political moment, at Brian's annual St. Patrick's Day pancake breakfast in Alexandria a few years ago, as his brother apologized to the crowd for his comments about Jews.
"Family is most important when you're in the valley," Brian recalled. "Not when you're on the mountaintop."
And yet, as Brian tries to reach the highest peak of his political career, that balancing act will continue: leaning on his brother -- and standing on his own -- as the need arises.