The Roanoke Times, July 28, 1999

Candidate's spanking of child draws cheers, jeers
Al Bedrosian is scheduled to appear in Salem's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court this morning for an arraignment hearing on an assault and battery charge. Critics think Al Bedrosian will take a whipping of his own at the polls come election day

By C.S. Murphy

There's something about the image of a young political candidate spanking another parent's child that has sparked a passionate community debate that still smolders weeks after the incident.

Al Bedrosian, a Republican Xerox salesman running for the 14th District House seat, was charged with assault and battery for spanking a 2-year-old in a hospital waiting room July 9.

The incident has produced a polarized wave of public opinion and has political pundits wondering whether the event will help or hurt his race.

Bedrosian, who hasn't hired an attorney, is scheduled to appear in Salem's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court this morning for an arraignment hearing.

Some say Bedrosian's actions were justified during an age when children seem to be running wild. Others say Bedrosian was way out of line and that it's inexcusable to strike someone else's child.

Mary Sutphin, a retired Roanoke County teacher, said she hadn't decided who she would vote for until she heard about the spanking. Then she decided without hesitation.

"He's got my vote," she said Tuesday. "Children need to be more disciplined. They shouldn't leave it to the teachers to do it."

Sutphin was sharing an early lunch with her friend Edna Martin, another retired teacher, at the Creekside Market in the Hollins area.

"He took control and didn't think of the political repercussions," she said. "That means he'll make a decision without thinking about what people think."

Bedrosian, known for his anti-abortion and pro-home schooling stances, is challenging Del. Richard Cranwell, D-Vinton, for the second time. He lost to the incumbent by a close margin in 1997.

Sutphin said the media attention wouldn't hurt Bedrosian in November.

"I actually think it will be a plus to him," she said. "Politically, it got his name in the paper, but I don't think that's why he did it."

Bonnie Hartman, a teaching assistant in Roanoke County Schools, said the incident only solidified her support of Cranwell. She said she expected more voters to shy away from Bedrosian.

"If I had been on the fence, this definitely would have changed the way I think about him," Hartman said. "It's just not a very smart thing to do. It reflects on his intelligence that he would do something so foolish."

Bob Denton, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Leadership Development, said his first reaction to hearing news of the spanking incident was, "You've got to be kidding. It's Christmas in July for Dick Cranwell."

"Last time, the race was about Cranwell and his politics," he said. "Unfortunately, this makes the race about Bedrosian and his personal behavior. I think it changes the dynamics of the race. It shows his naivete."

Denton called the incident "an incredible gift to Dick Cranwell" and "a political faux pas."

"It gives Cranwell a wedge issue," he said. "And it takes Bedrosian off strategy."

Denton said he wasn't surprised that Cranwell hasn't talked much about the incident.

"Right now, he's going to let Al shoot himself in the foot. From a strategy standpoint, you don't say anything. Take the high road, and let the people decide."

Attempts to reach Cranwell for comment were unsuccessful.

Bedrosian made a key decision quickly after the incident to stand by his actions, even saying that he'd do it again, Denton said.

"He could have apologized and admitted fault, but politicians have a hard time doing that," he said. "It solidified that persona he had of being hotheaded and not well disciplined. It just reinforced his weaknesses from the prior campaign."

Denton said races for the 14th House seat have often been high-profile, based on personalities and speckled with attack ads.

"This is just fulfilling that kind of history," he said.

State Del. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said it's too early to say how the story will affect Bedrosian's image and, therefore, the campaign.

"It's a tossup right now," he said. "A lot depends on what happens in the rest of the campaign. You can't judge Cranwell by one action, and I don't think you can judge Bedrosian by one action."

Griffith said the incident should reveal to voters that Bedrosian isn't a typical candidate.

"It's true that it shows that Al has some political naivete, but I think that's part of what's appealing to some folks about Al," he said. "He doesn't think about the political ramifications. He just thinks about what's right at the moment."

Griffith for the second time in recent months compared Bedrosian to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler.

"Some of the things he does are going to be unconventional but he brings an interesting dynamic to politics," he said. "People need to understand that that's just Al. He's not driven by some of the things that others are driven by. He's just Al."

Larry Sabato, a professor of political science and government at the University of Virginia, said the race would continue to be a competition between Cranwell's seniority and Bedrosian's "new face."

"Frankly, campaigns are filled with incidents that fade from public memory before November," Sabato said. "Unless this is the focus of a print or video advertisement, I doubt that this will be a deciding factor."

Ed Lynch, Roanoke County Republican Party chairman, said he's been watching news coverage of the spanking with interest.

"I'm inclined to view it rather seriously," he said. "I think that judging from the reaction that I've heard, Mr. Bedrosian has done some damage to his reputation among exactly the voters he has to reach -- the suburbanites."

Lynch, who ran against Bedrosian for the Republican nomination, said he would continue to support his former competitor. He said he hasn't talked to Bedrosian about the incident, but he would offer the candidate some advice.

"I would tell him to issue an apology, which he doesn't couple with the phrase, 'I'd do the same thing again,'" Lynch said. He said Bedrosian's insistence that he didn't make a mistake has hurt him.

Kathy Sammons, an administrative secretary for Botetourt County's planning department, said she thinks the incident has shown the public Bedrosian's true colors.

"It just showed me that he is a person that maybe doesn't think things through," she said. "Maybe we're blowing this whole thing out of proportion, but I don't think he should have done that."

Sammons said Bedrosian's actions were frustrating to parents who are already struggling to make their children behave in public.

"You can't go anywhere anymore and give your own child a spanking whether they need it or not. And here's Mr. Bedrosian ... and this wasn't even his own child. Parents are having a hard enough time trying to discipline their own children in public situations."

Mary Gunsalus , a Roanoke County resident, said Bedrosian did "what any sensible parent would have done."

She said the incident would affect the race much.

"There are so many blips on the media screen, and so many other things come up along the way. The sound bites will be multiple before November," Gunsalus said.

Although Gunsalus supported Bedrosian's actions, she said he could have handled the child in other ways.

"Sometimes in the moments of discipline, we forget what the options are," she said. "I'm sure in hindsight he wishes he'd picked another option."

Mac Williamson, a Botetourt County resident who is a food sales representative for Staunton Foods, said the exposure would only help Bedrosian's campaign.

"I think it will work in his favor because it comes back to the principles I was raised with," he said. "I think he was just taking up for his own. It was just a swift smack on the butt. It wasn't brutality or something."

Williamson said he'd like to see a return to the days when paddling unruly children in school was acceptable.

"When we got out of line, we got a swift smack on the butt, and we got it again when we got home. It didn't hurt me, and it made me a better person," he said.

Sabato said he didn't think the incident would change many voters' minds.

"In the end ... the Democrats say, "That's it. He's dead.' The Republicans say, 'That's it. He's elected.' But the people who are talking about it are highly partisan anyway, and the issue isn't going to change the way they vote."

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