- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2018

DENVER — Before he made a name for himself in politics, Rep. Jared Polis was what you might call an unrepentant name-dropper.

Born Jared Polis Schutz, the Colorado Democrat switched his last name for his mother’s maiden name as he prepared to make his first bid for public office in 2000. He told local newspaper Westword that he did it to honor his mother “and because I liked it better.”

Left unsaid was that “Polis” holds another distinct advantage over “Schutz”: It doesn’t rhyme with “putz” or “klutz.”

The decision to rid himself of a clunky surname paid off for Mr. Polis. After five terms in Congress, he is now the favorite to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the June 26 primary — and he’s not the only one.

Switching surnames can be a dicey proposition for politicians, who risk suspicions that they are more about style than substance, but recent high-profile examples show that losing an unwieldy name — or gaining one with more ethnic flair — may be a gamble worth taking.



New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been scrutinized for rechristening himself not once but twice — he was born Warren Wilhelm Jr. — but he has won a string of elections since settling on his current surname in 2001.

Former California Senate President Kevin de Leon — born Kevin Alexander Leon — who has been accused of pandering to Hispanic voters by adding “de” and an accent over the “o” in Leon.

Mr. de Leon has never legally changed his name, but that didn’t stop him from placing second in the state’s top-two Senate primary on June 5, giving him the opportunity to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, in November.

Still, most politicians with problematic last names choose to brazen it out, and plenty have succeeded, including Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Massachusetts state Sen. Ryan Fattman.

Would he ever change his name? Fat chance.

“I love my last name,” Mr. Fattman said. “It prepared me well for politics growing up.”

He said he also doesn’t want to play into the “phony politician” stereotype by giving voters a reason to suspect he is less than genuine.

“Not that I’m going to cast judgment on anyone I don’t know, but it just kind of wafts of phony to change your name,” Mr. Fattman said. “I think people more than ever are looking for authenticity and real people. If you’re [being] calculating about changing your name because it’s funny or something, I think voters would see right through that.”

‘Secret weapon’

Names don’t get much tougher than that of Montana’s Russell Fagg, but he was elected twice to the state Legislature and four times as district judge before placing second to Matt Rosendale on June 5 in the Republican Senate primary.

Mr. Fagg agreed his last name is difficult but said he never considered changing it, in part because his father and grandfather also were prominent figures in Montana public life and in part because ditching the family name for political gain just isn’t something he would do.

“The truth is I’m actually proud of my name. It’s a name that’s been around Montana for a long time,” Mr. Fagg said. “My dad and my granddad and my great-granddad all wore the name. The bottom line is I would not change my name to try to get into political office. It wouldn’t be worth it to me.”

Not that he doesn’t appreciate the impulse. “I have an uncle who ran for judge in Texas with the last name of Fagg and he lost, and he’s convinced he lost because of his name, so he changed his name and never ran again,” Mr. Fagg said. “So I definitely understand the idea behind changing the name.”

If there’s a silver lining to a tough name, it’s that people remember it, as Mr. Fattman can attest.

As a child, he was nicknamed “Fatty” — for the record, he’s not overweight. As an adult, he believes his memorable moniker has become his political “secret weapon,” providing him with a natural icebreaker with voters and drawing national attention.

HuffPo, formerly The Huffington Post, ranked him sixth on its 2012 list of “unfortunate political names,” and he has appeared on television and radio outlets to discuss the challenges of running as a Fattman.

“Part of running for office is publicity and public relations and having the opportunity to present yourself and your ideas, and if the last name Fattman gets you through the door, well, that’s a door I’m going to take every single time,” he said.

Politicians who do change their names inevitably have to explain their decisions, which has led to more questions in the case of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat who is running to oust Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Accused of trying to make himself sound more Hispanic by going by Beto instead of Robert, his real name, Mr. O’Rourke told reporters he has gone by the nickname since he was a boy. The Washington Free Beacon, though, unearthed news clips from Columbia University that identified him as “Rob” and “Robert.”

The Cruz campaign has poked fun at “Beto” by releasing a jingle in March with the lyrics, “I remember reading stories, liberal Robert wanted to fit in/So he changed his name to Beto, and hid it with a grin.”

FIRST LISTEN: our new 60-second statewide radio ad introducing our liberal opponent, Congressman Robert O’Rourke, to Texas voters.

Help #KeepTexasRed: https://t.co/PVsiCtbbyL  #CruzCrew #TXSen pic.twitter.com/OxK61gZ0ek

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) March 7, 2018

Supporters of Mr. O’Rourke have countered that Mr. Cruz also goes by a nickname — his full name is Rafael Edward Cruz — although “Ted” is a common nickname for “Edward” and Mr. Cruz is of Hispanic descent, unlike Mr. O’Rourke.

After word of his name change emerged last year, Mr. de Leon told The Sacramento Bee that he changed his name from “Leon” during college because he wanted to “somehow connect with my father,” whom he met only once, even though his Guatemala-born father was named Andres Leon.

The American Spectator’s Steven Greenhut was leery, arguing in a 2017 op-ed that Mr. de Leon’s name change shows “how fixated California Democrats have become on race and ethnicity issues.”

Name-changing also can lead to legal trouble. Rep. Ruben Gallego, Arizona Democrat, was sued in 2014 by an opponent who argued that his nomination petition was illegal because it “does not state the candidate’s actual name.”

It turned out that Mr. Gallego had changed his name legally in 2008 before running for office. He dropped his birth surname, Marinelarena, in favor of Gallego, his mother’s maiden name.

Certainly “Marinelarena” was a bit of a mouthful, but Mr. Gallego said in a 2014 statement that he made the change to honor his mother. He credited her as “the reason I have had so many incredible opportunities in my life” after his father abandoned the family.

How did Bill de Blasio evolve from Warren Wilhelm Jr.? Mr. de Blasio has said he went by “Bill” growing up, which apparently was shorthand for his last name. His parents divorced when he was 7, and he was raised by his mother’s family. He changed his name legally after college and his father’s death to Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm.

In 2001, he changed it to Bill de Blasio, taking his mother’s maiden name in what he described as a tribute to his mom, her family and his Italian heritage, and won his first election to the New York City Council the same year.

Could a candidate reach the White House with a less-than-organic name? It has happened twice in the modern era, with Presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, both of whom took their stepfathers’ names before they turned 18.

Mr. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., but his mother changed his name unofficially to Gerald Rudolff Ford Jr. after she remarried when he was a boy. As an adult, he changed it legally to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr.

Born William Jefferson Blythe III, Mr. Clinton began using the surname of his stepfather, Roger Clinton Sr., as a boy after his mother remarried, and changed it legally as a teenager.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide