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Brian Moran, Democrats' Dutiful Son, Steps Into Spotlight in Va. Governor's Race

Brian Moran's upbringing in his large, relatively poor Irish Catholic family taught him the values of hard work, political engagement and compromise.

"Voters don't know who the hell I am," Moran lamented over spaghetti later that night, when he, as always, cleaned his plate. "And I don't have the money to tell them." Moran was the last candidate to air TV ads.

Out on the stump, he often reels through his plans. There's the "Green Virginia" plan promoting alternative energy, and his "Healthy Virginia" plan to ensure that all children have health care, and his "Smart Virginia" plan to lower class sizes. What he has had difficulty doing is talking about himself. In the stoic Irish Catholic culture, that's just not something you do.

But he's trying. He knows that in a race in which all three candidates hold similar positions, personal narrative could be the only way to distinguish himself. So at a recent appearance at a retirement community in Springfield, he ditched his prepared speech on his "Silver Plan" for the elderly and instead talked about his grandparents.

John Francis Xavier Moran met Agnes Dowd on a ship sailing from Ireland to America. They settled in Boston, where Brian Moran's grandfather began pulling coal carts and early on became involved in Boston politics.

One of Moran's earliest childhood memories is knocking on doors for local Democratic candidates with his father, a Roosevelt Democrat who once ran for school board. The dinner table was always a time to discuss politics and news. "I don't know life without public service," Moran said. "There was always a sense of obligation to be engaged."

At 9, Moran marched 20 miles with his sister Mary to protest hunger. At 13, he took the train to Washington to watch the Watergate hearings. After graduating from community college, he coached youth sports and ran for the local board of recreation. After law school at Catholic University, he became involved in Alexandria politics and charities. He took his wife, Karyn, to a City Council meeting for their first date.

While he was growing up, the family never had much. When his father was laid off from a well-paying job as a sales rep for a brewery, he found lower-paying work as a probation officer. Moran grew up drinking powdered milk and wearing Goodwill hand-me-downs. He took on a paper route, bagged groceries and worked the graveyard shift at a gas station.

Being the youngest taught him to watch, listen and learn, his sister Mary Siudut said. "He was the mediator of the family," she said.

Those abilities served him in cutting deals in the House, colleagues said. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) likens their relationship to the Looney Tunes cartoon of the sheepdog and coyote. "They'd be talking to each other on the way to work. 'Hey, Ralph.' 'Hey, Sam.' They clock in, beat the crap out of each other, then they clock out and walk home arm in arm," Albo said. "He's actually a cool dude."

Moran does not have the larger-than-life persona of his brother Jim. He does not always seek the spotlight; when Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Jamestown coincided with his son's "Star Wars" birthday party, Moran kept his promise to his son to dress up as Darth Vader.

In every political move, friends say, there's usually been a vacuum to be filled, and he has been "nudged" to take it. "Self-promotion doesn't come naturally to Brian," said his longtime friend Shawn McLaughlin, a financial adviser in Alexandria. "And I say that as a compliment."

Mark Warner suggested that Moran run for the House of Delegates in 1995 after an incumbent retired. Moran stepped in to chair the Democratic caucus in 2001 when no one else wanted the job: Democrats had lost an astounding 16 seats, the caucus was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the previous chair, Deeds, left to run for Senate. Party leaders came to Moran after the 2005 election to ask him to run in 2009, even though no governor had been elected directly from the General Assembly since 1953.

But now he's all in. "You have to really want this," Moran said during the three-hour drive on Interstates 95 and 64 from Springfield to Chesapeake the other day, with the Red Sox game playing on the radio and with fresh shirts and undecided-voter lists lying atop a child's booster seat.

These are roads he knows well. Just as he knows Route 58, which passes the Great Dismal Swamp. And that the Dairy Queen at Exit 214 is a good place to stop for a Blizzard.

"I know there's no such thing as a sure thing," he said between fundraising calls. "You gotta work." He looked out the window as the miles rolled by.

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