Kennedy name a positive as Townsend looks to '02

The Political Game

Opportunity: Though she seems glad to finally be known for her record, she hasn't shied from using her legacy.

July 27, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

TWO WEEKS AGO, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend sat down with me for an hourlong interview for an article focusing on the early stages of her campaign for governor in 2002.

She talked about her crime prevention initiatives, her new concentration on economic development issues and her political plans.

One thing we did not discuss.

"Did you realize I didn't ask you about your family?" I said as we wrapped up.

Townsend paused and smiled.

"You know, that's the first time that's ever happened," she said.

After 4 1/2 years in office, Townsend is beginning to be known in Maryland for her record, not simply for her middle name.

But when the small plane carrying her cousin, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and her sister crashed off Martha's Vineyard, there was only one topic anybody wanted to discuss with her.

With an army of reporters hounding the Kennedy family, Townsend disappeared from public view for a week, trying to find privacy in her Ruxton home as she dealt with the death of another relative.

Such moments define the worst aspect of being a Kennedy -- family matters become major news, and privacy is hard won.

There is no doubt that being a Kennedy in politics is, on balance, a positive thing -- even in Maryland, far from the family's home base in Massachusetts.

Some people have suggested that Gov. Parris N. Glendening wouldn't have picked Townsend to be his running mate in 1994 if she had been named, for example, Kathleen Smith Townsend.

At the time, she held a relatively obscure federal job and her political experience consisted of a 1986 loss against then-U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

Townsend, 48, understands such things.

When asked about her family privileges, she talks earnestly about the doors that have opened for her -- and a corresponding civic responsibility.

Townsend has used her opportunity to pursue public-service goals she believes in: the state's mandatory voluntarism requirement for high school students, for example.

In her speeches, she does not shy from quoting her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy.

She also invokes her family's tragedies in certain circumstances. She brings up her brother David's death from an overdose when discussing the need for better drug treatment.

In meetings with victims of gun violence, she reminds them in an understated but powerful way that her family has suffered from violent crime.

Townsend is trying to take the next step and become Maryland's first female governor.

There will be those who, for whatever reason, dislike her family and rule her out without a second glance.

But it seems probable they will be outnumbered by Marylanders who remember the 1960s and the good feelings associated with her father and her uncle, the late President John F. Kennedy.

Townsend can scarcely make a public appearance without running into such admirers. "I really admired your father," they invariably begin.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, says Townsend must be considered a front-runner -- at least for now -- in the 2002 governor's race, thanks in large measure to her name.

"By virtue of the fact that she's Bobby Kennedy's daughter and the fact she's done a good job. I'd like to say it's more important that she's done a good job, but I'm not sure the voters notice that," Hoffman said.

"Remember, to the average person, this is Bobby Kennedy's daughter," Hoffman said. "I don't even think about that anymore, but other people do."

The stirring coverage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death will augment that feeling, as Marylanders have been reminded of Townsend's connections to her handsome younger cousin.

In the end, the Kennedy factor will not propel Townsend to victory in 3 1/2 years. But it could help.

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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