What Can Glendening Have Been Thinking?

June 26, 1994|By BARRY RASCOVAR

In the world of politics, always expect the unexpected. How else to explain the selection of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as a running mate for Democratic gubernatorial favorite Parris Glendening?

Initial reaction from many politicians -- Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, men and women -- has been negative. ''Naive,'' said a longtime politico. ''It is so stupid,'' said a Glendening backer. ''A major blunder,'' said an ex-official who thought it could become an albatross for Mr. Glendening in the general election.

In fact, the folks most excited by the Townsend selection turned out to be workers for Republican front-runner Helen Bentley. ''This did more to reinvigorate our campaign than anything we could have done,'' noted one Bentleyite.

Why this less-than-uplifting response to the choice of Ms. Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy?

* It does little to add to Mr. Glendening's base. Ms. Townsend may live in the Towson area, but she has no political apparatus there. She's a candidate without a county. The only time she ran for office -- eight years ago -- she spent a million dollars and got clobbered by Mrs. Bentley.

* The notion of the ''Kennedy mystique'' as an election element is viewed as pure invention. There's no evidence that the Kennedy name is magic in Maryland. Quite the contrary. The name is now synonymous in many voters' minds with Big Government and big-spending, tax-raising politicians.

* Her credentials for election to statewide office are modest. As a candidate for House of Delegates, her jobs in the state education and law departments and in the Justice Department might make her a solid contender, but her resume looks weak compared with that of Mrs. Bentley's running mate, state Sen. Howard A. Denis, for instance.

* Other possible No. 2 candidates offered far more in terms of experience and geographic clout. Such names as Del. Nancy Kopp of Montgomery County, Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore City and attorney general candidate Eleanor Carey were considered and rejected -- though their selection would have made more sense from a traditional political standpoint.

Perhaps it was Ms. Townsend's modest Annapolis credentials that made the difference. After all, if you're going to run as a State House outsider, what better way to make that point than to choose a No. 2 who has been in public service but isn't a State House veteran?

In the overall scheme of things, the choice of lieutenant governor is a forgettable item. The job is a dead-end position with no power -- unless the governor dies. Besides, voters in the past have never made their choice of a governor based on who was running for the No. 2 spot.

This year, though, voters are curiously uninformed about the candidates for governor. They are looking for clues as to how these candidates would run the state. That's why Ms. Townsend's selection is being viewed so closely.

It also explains why Mrs. Bentley's selection of Mr. Denis was examined in such depth. Voters are trying to gauge the values of their governor candidates based on their selection of running mates.

The Denis announcement shows that Mrs. Bentley understands what she needs to succeed as governor: a partner who is skilled in the ways of the legislature, who has compassion for the state's downtrodden and a pragmatic view of the limits of government.

In contrast, Mr. Glendening seems to have been drawn to Ms. Townsend by her tenacious, high- energy personality, her work on social issues such as volunteerism and the environment and her ties to the Baltimore region. But Ms. Townsend is more Hyannisport-Virginia Hunt Country than she is Bawlamer.

It also will be tough for Mr. Glendening to erase the ''liberal big spender'' charge when he is running with a Kennedy heir -- especially when he has already promised to add a quarter-billion dollars in new obligations to the state budget on top of the cumulative $1.2 billion deficit projected for the next four years.

Curiously, Mr. Glendening's selection of a running mate runs counter to the recent voting trend in Maryland. Voters have increasingly opted for the more moderate candidate: William Donald Schaefer over Stephen Sachs, for instance, or Joseph Curran over Ms. Carey and Tim Baker in 1986 -- the last wide-open election year.

In presidential races, ''liberal'' Maryland went for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Just two years ago, state Democrats favored Paul Tsongas over Bill Clinton. Voter registration rolls confirm the shift. What once had been a 3-1 Democratic advantage over Republicans has been reduced to a 2-1 lead.

Yet Mr. Glendening has now aligned his candidacy with someone to his political left. In theory it leaves an opening for another candidate to seize the middle ground in the Democratic primary. There is still time.

But so far, no one has been up to the task. Mr. Glendening remains the best-organized and best-financed candidate in the Democratic crowd, even if he seems to have stubbed his toe with the Townsend selection.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.

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