After four years as the loyal supporting player, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is methodically making her way to the center stage of Maryland politics.
Having established herself as the state's champion of mandatory community service and several anti-crime initiatives, Townsend now serves as point person on the state's economic development efforts.
Yesterday, she took the first public step toward an expected run for governor in 2002, with a $10-a-head fund-raiser at the Baltimore Zoo that attracted an eye-popping crowd of about 3,400 and featured warm tributes from Democratic leaders.
And Wednesday and Thursday, Townsend, 48, will serve as co-chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council's "national conversation" in Baltimore, a policy fest that draws rising political figures from around the country and will be highlighted by a speech Wednesday by President Clinton.
"Her landmark work on crime, character education and volunteerism has served as a model for New Democrats," Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, says of Townsend.
Some Maryland politicians give the Ruxton resident the early lead in what is likely to be a crowded gubernatorial field in 2002.
"If you were going to handicap it, she has the edge," says state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.
Such talk sends shudders through the Townsend camp.
The lieutenant governor, after all, has not been fully tested on her own, because she has loyally stayed in line behind Gov. Parris N. Glendening the past four years.
And politically speaking, a front-runner ends up taking arrows in the back from challengers.
"The question is, when put to the test, facing very controversial issues or decisions, how will she perform?" says Keith Haller, a Bethesda pollster who has watched Townsend's career closely. "Right now, it's somewhat of a magic carpet ride."
Townsend makes clear she want to keep the focus on policy.
"I intend to be around for a long time, but I'm not going to talk about a gubernatorial campaign today," Townsend said in a recent interview. "It's a ways off. If you only talk about elections, you focus people's attention on something down the road and not on what you're trying to accomplish."
Plus, she adds: "Good policy is good politics."
In recent months, Townsend has focused on the Maryland economy, meeting with business leaders to hear their concerns and to tout the state's economic strengths.
At a recent Annapolis gathering of about 30 representatives of firms new to Maryland, Townsend made sure the guests knew where they could turn for help.
"If you need anything, please call me," Townsend told the group at the Annapolis Yacht Club. "We really want to make sure you have the tools you need."
To hear a member of the nation's most prominent liberal political family make such a pro-business pitch might be a bit unexpected for some Marylanders.
But for Townsend, it is a logical step to widen her reach.
Townsend said the administration will begin proposing policy initiatives in economic development in coming months. The state, she says, should streamline its regulatory structure and not force businesses to make several stops to get routine permits.
"Wouldn't it be easier to do it in a simplified process?" Townsend asks, echoing for a moment one of the chief themes of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who was defeated twice by the Glendening-Townsend team.
But, generally, the Maryland economy is strong, she says, rattling off good job growth numbers to show it.
"Part of my challenge is to get that story out there," she says.
Even as she makes publicized forays into the Maryland business world, Townsend is quietly spending time with more traditional Democratic constituencies such as unions, African-American religious leaders and a minority contractors group.
She recently spent 2 1/2 hours in a Cockeysville union hall meeting with about 125 labor leaders and rank-and-file members of both private-sector and government unions.
"She just wanted to spend a significant amount of time with working-class people to hear their concerns," says Kevin B. O'Connor, president of the state firefighters union and one of the organizers of the event. "It's something more elected officials should do."
While Townsend did not explicitly ask for endorsements from the assembled unions, O'Connor says, "She brings a lot to the table."
Few political insiders would have been so complimentary four years ago.
Early in the Glendening administration, a handful of awkward public appearances hurt her image, and many lawmakers dismissed Townsend as a "lightweight."
She often scrambled her speeches, unartfully quoting Greek philosophers or the Bible. One legislator speculated that Townsend had "attention-deficit disorder."
Undaunted, Townsend and her effective staff worked harder.
She crisscrossed the state to discuss her anti-crime initiatives and sought advice from ranking Democrats.
`Room for improvement'
Townsend watched herself on videotape and worked with advisers on her public speaking.