Despite obscure office, new lieutenant governor expects challenging work KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND -- Starting From The Sidelines

January 15, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

In this roomful of savvy politicians, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- wearing thick glasses, no makeup and a broad grin -- looks more like a student of government than the guest speaker.

She's among the youngest at this networking breakfast for Maryland women legislators. She's never been elected to office on her own. And her informal talk -- You can make a difference . . . Get involved -- has more spirit than substance.

Rather than speaking, though, she's here to get a crash course in local politics. And Mrs. Townsend -- the eldest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- has much to learn.

On Wednesday, she becomes Maryland's first female lieutenant governor and the first female Kennedy to take elective office -- albeit one with limited power and visibility. Her experience as Parris N. Glendening's running mate already has been a nail-biter: The gubernatorial election, which was the closest in 60 years, has been challenged in court by Republican rival Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Since entering the campaign, Mrs. Townsend, 43, has weathered criticism that she isn't right for -- or up to -- the job. Political commentators called the selection of Mrs. Townsend, who epitomizes liberalism as the country grows more conservative, one of the governor-elect's first, and most serious, missteps.

Her low profile during the campaign and transition fueled speculation that she received the nod because a Kennedy would bring fame and money to the ticket. When she was not "officially" named to the transition team, some politicians viewed it as a snub and wondered: Would her biggest challenge be avoiding obscurity during the next four years?

"I'm not interested in keeping my face known," says Mrs. Townsend, who prior to the campaign was best known for helping to make community service a high school graduation requirement in Maryland. "I think the big challenge is to do a great job on the issues that Parris has laid out for me -- public safety, job development and schools. I couldn't care less if you hear about my name if we can accomplish those."

Mr. Glendening says he selected her from a list of dozens because she best complemented him. She brought a female perspective, a Baltimore County address and experience in criminal justice and education.

A 'deciding factor'

"Her enthusiasm and excitement for the job became a deciding factor," he says. "She really wanted to be lieutenant governor not because it was a steppingstone to something else but because of her interest in working with me."

She meets much in her life with a vigor that seems like armor as much as her natural demeanor. But friends and associates say this energy is genuine -- and helps motivate her.

Her positive attitude, combined with her thick, brown hair and trim build, make her seem younger than her age. It's only in profile -- and in the faint lines etched around her eyes and mouth -- that she has started to resemble her mother, Ethel.

"Kathleen is terribly bright, energetic and asks the right questions," says Rich Hollander, president of Millbrook Communications, a local TV production firm, who is also a Townsend family friend and informal adviser to Mr. Glendening.

"She's really engaging," he says. "She's the kind of person who if you're having a dinner party, and you're afraid it's going to be dull, you say 'Let's invite Kathleen and [her husband] David.' "

This, after all, is a woman who grew up in the company of presidents and senators, who spent her first date with her husband rafting down the Mississippi River for weeks, and who gave birth to her four daughters at home.

Yet detractors privately say she can be arrogant, highhanded and unfocused. They decline to speak publicly, though, for fear of offending her.

When asked what the campaign taught her about herself, she unhesitatingly replies: "I think I've already learned everything about myself. . . . I haven't changed in 25 years. I was happy with me then and I'm happy with me now. It doesn't show much growth potential, does it?"

But during lunch shortly after the election, the outgoing lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, assured her that the job would teach her plenty.

"Surround herself with some experience -- that was my advice to her," recalls Mr. Steinberg, who ran for governor and lost badly to Mr. Glendening in the Democratic primary.

"Her assets are that she increased fund-raising . . . and she's a woman. That showed a reaching out -- an inclusion. Her weakness? Inexperience," says Mr. Steinberg, who had years of experience in the General Assembly before becoming lieutenant governor. "She's not familiar with some issues. During one of the debates, she represented Glendening at a forum -- a health symposium. She gave a personal anecdote about her grandmother that didn't address the issue and left quickly after that.

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