Townsend playing elevated role in '98 4 years ago she kept a low profile, but now she's key in campaign

Campaign 1998

October 12, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Four years ago, Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening stood at a State House podium surrounded by his most trusted advisers and his wife to announce his transition team -- as his running mate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, sat on a couch behind them, looking on.

That image seemed to underscore the prevailing political chatter at the time that Glendening's surprise choice for lieutenant governor was little more than his chance to capitalize on the Kennedy name as a vote and money magnet among certain constituencies.

In sharp contrast this year, Townsend is a key component in the Glendening re-election campaign, a tight race against Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey that will be decided Nov. 3 by Maryland voters.

Townsend is now as visible, if not more visible, than the governor. Glendening rarely makes a move without her. She is with him on the campaign trail and figures prominently in the ticket's television ads.

And in a biographical ad about Glendening, she's the one speaking, not him.

"It's fascinating because it's very unusual," said Herbert C. Smith, a political scientist from Western Maryland College. "For a lieutenant governor to take that role, I don't think it's ever happened before in Maryland politics.

"I thought it was a master stroke," Smith said.

Townsend acknowledges that her role as ticket-mate has changed since the last election, in which she kept a low profile, appearing most often among black voters.

"There's clearly a difference between this campaign and the last one," she said.

"We didn't know each other very well, when we first joined together," Townsend said. "But we developed a trust with one another, and obviously I've built a record of accomplishment that's been more visible than what I did before. So it makes sense, since we do have a strong partnership."

Hers, however, is not an uncalculated role.

Polls have consistently shown that Townsend is overwhelmingly well liked among divergent groups of voters across Maryland. Neither Glendening nor Sauerbrey fares nearly as well.

"The obvious is as obvious as it can be: Her popularity ratings are higher than his are, and he's hoping that some of her popularity will rub off on him," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Sauerbrey spokeswoman.

Townsend enjoys remarkably high name recognition for a lieutenant governor. She is known by 88 percent of likely voters, more than half of whom have a favorable impression of her, according to a poll for The Sun and other news organizations released last week.

By contrast, just 43 percent of the electorate knows Richard D. Bennett, a former U.S. attorney who is Sauerbrey's running mate, according to the poll by Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda.

But a more important polling number for Townsend is that only 18 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable impression of her -- compared with 39 percent for Glendening and 34 percent for Sauerbrey, the survey showed.

"Hey, we know it," said Glendening-Townsend campaign manager Karen White, who acknowledges the up-front role of the lieutenant governor in this race.

"We think it's important to let the voters know that they're getting a package here -- they're getting a governor and lieutenant governor," White said. "This is as much her campaign as it is his campaign."

Supporters hasten to point out that Townsend's high-profile role is not merely a campaign device, but the outgrowth of a genuine working partnership that has developed between Glendening and his lieutenant governor since the 1994 campaign.

"They have a very good relationship, which has not always been true with a governor and a lieutenant governor," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat and former Maryland House speaker who weighed a primary challenge against Glendening last year.

"I think she's found a very comfortable niche as lieutenant governor," Cardin said.

Four years ago, when Glendening announced his transition team, a role for Townsend was noticeably missing from his remarks. But within weeks he gave his lieutenant governor -- a constitutional office with no specific duties -- the vague charge of overseeing criminal justice issues.

Townsend seized the opportunity. She put together an eager, young staff, took up the banner for innovative anti-crime measures and carried it across the state.

Initially dismissed by many in the state's political hierarchy as a "lightweight" -- a label that persists in some quarters -- Townsend gradually made believers out of some of the toughest sells in Annapolis. Slowly she elbowed her way to the table in the administration.

Glendening reportedly follows her lead on criminal justice issues -- and, more importantly, seeks her input on matters political.

"She has a very important role in this campaign especially when we're discussing strategy," White said.

Working behind the scenes

This year, she also has worked behind the scenes to smooth over differences between Glendening and other Democrats.

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