Townsend chosen to bring 'excitement' to the ticket

June 22, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

ANNAPOLIS -- When she first ran for public office in 1986, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend did not yet exist.

She was just Kathleen Townsend then, no middle name. And she did not want to talk about her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy.

She was running for Congress on her own, thank you very much, and needed no family connections to gain victory.

A position she held right up until a flock of family members descended upon her to point out that as long as you are going to get the downside of being a Kennedy, which is constant scrutiny, you might as well exploit the upside, which is star quality.

I am guessing about that. I have to guess because when I asked Townsend yesterday if there had been some incident that persuaded her to change her mind about the use of the Kennedy name in 1986, she replied: "Yes."

And when I asked her if she could talk about it, she said: "No, I can't. Look, I had never run before. One becomes more comfortable with running. I became more comfortable."

And so, in the middle of the campaign, she became comfortable with her middle name and comfortable with talking about her father.

Which did not help her in the least.

After Townsend spent more than a million dollars (or more than $15 for every vote she received) she was crushed by the Republican incumbent, Helen Bentley, by 18 percentage points.

Which Townsend today is not taking personally.

"I thought I ran a terrific campaign," she said. "I just didn't convince voters to prefer me to Helen Bentley."

But isn't that the purpose of campaigning? I asked.

"That's true," Townsend said.

Now Townsend has been chosen by Parris Glendening as his running mate as he seeks the Democratic nomination for governor.

So the question must be asked: Can Townsend have star quality without ever actually having been a star?

Slightly unfair, I admit. While it is true Townsend has never held public office, it is also true the job of lieutenant governor is not particularly demanding. And the question for all candidates for the office remains: Do they have the qualifications for a do-nothing job?

Besides which, Glendening made clear at a news conference yesterday that part of Townsend's role is to bring excitement to the ticket.

AAnd while it is hard to imagine what an excited Parris Glendening might actually look like, he did claim to have experienced the emotion.

"I am very pleased about the excitement that has come from this team, and I am excited about it," Glendening said.

An unidentified Glendening operative was a little more direct with the Washington Post: "She brings us star quality, the Kennedy mystique."

Townsend dodged most questions about her star quality -- "I think the real question is how you get quality education and safer streets," she said -- but has grown more comfortable about campaigning under the family banner.

"I am very proud of my family," she said. "They have given me a love of politics and of public service."

And Townsend has devoted her life to public service in a series of jobs, the most recent of which was an eight-month stint as a deputy assistant attorney general working on federal anti-crime grants. Yesterday, however, was not really a day for substance but to show off the new team.

And unlike Glendening, who read his statement on Townsend as if he were announcing a new policy on drip irrigation, Townsend gave very good TV: She spoke with a lot of emphasis. She used dramatic pauses. And she flashed a toothy and winsome grin reminiscent of her father's.

Ninety minutes before, Helen Bentley, the Republican front-runner for governor, had announced her own choice for lieutenant governor: Howard Denis, a 17-year veteran of the Maryland Senate.

But while Bentley crowed that by defeating Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 1986, Bentley became the only person in America to defeat a Kennedy in a general election, she clearly does not understand star quality:

If Bentley really had wanted to make headlines over her choice of a running mate, she would have picked Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

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