Townsend gets biggest boost

Session gives her edge over likely gubernatorial rivals

Analysis

April 14, 2000|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend emerged from the General Assembly session still on top among likely candidates for governor, the collateral beneficiary of a billion-dollar surplus and the successes of her boss, Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

All three potential Democratic candidates in 2002 -- Townsend, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan -- helped their political causes a bit during the 90-day session that ended Monday. But Townsend got the biggest boost and remains the the perceived front-runner, political analysts say.

She was at the table when money and projects were doled out, delivered the good news of possible 10 percent raises for teachers and shared the national spotlight on landmark gun-safety legislation, which was signed into law as President Clinton looked on.

Townsend did all that while dodging the tar brush of the beleaguered juvenile justice system, which she oversees.

"Kathleen just plows ahead," said Blair Lee IV, a political commentator from Montgomery County. "When Parris wins, she wins. All she has to do is stay on the script."

This year, her possible competition in the Democratic primary could not keep up.

While Ruppersberger forged a bond with Baltimore and Duncan staked out statewide positions on social issues, Townsend was most prominent.

"It's hard to compete with President Clinton reminding us of who she is and what her family has been through," Lee said.

Ruppersberger and Duncan -- executives of two of Maryland's largest jurisdictions -- went home with hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid, allowing them to proclaim the session a success.

"Both county executives enhanced their political bases in their home communities, and there's nothing more more important than solidifying your political base," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda pollster and longtime state political observer.

He added, however, that "the problem for a Ruppersberger or a Duncan is that they need to be penetrating beyond their home borders. It's awfully hard to do that in Annapolis, where it is mostly an `inside baseball' game."

Nevertheless, Ruppersberger, who is barred from running for a third term as county executive, was conspicuous in Annapolis. He continued his hands-on approach of working individual legislators for their support, using his county delegation's sizable bloc of votes as leverage.

He reached an accommodation with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley by backing jointly sponsored legislation to benefit both jurisdictions and pledged $1 million of county money toward the renovation of the Hippodrome Theater downtown.

In turn, O'Malley pressed his delegation to support one of Ruppersberger's top priorities, a bill to give Baltimore County the condemnation power to redevelop Essex-Middle River and two aging neighborhoods.

Ruppersberger "worked the delegation and the committee very hard and really got tremendous cooperation out of his fellow county executives," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is vice chair of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

Opposition to the bill was a public relations nightmare for Ruppersberger. Essex-Middle River area demonstrators mounted a three-week campaign in the State House decrying the legislation as a "land grab."

Duncan, who has the reputation of being the first Montgomery County executive to wade into the mud of Annapolis and fight for his county's share of the spoils, did so again this year.

Montgomery is expected to receive $50 million in school construction money and state aid to help redevelop Silver Spring and build a jail and two district court buildings.

Duncan also pressed for state social programs and juvenile justice reforms. He supported legislation that would have put cash in the pockets of the working poor by expanding the state's earned income tax credit. The General Assembly expanded the program, but not as much as Duncan had hoped.

He also backed proposed changes in the state Department of Juvenile Justice, including creation of an oversight commission for the troubled agency. The reform package died in committee after Glendening urged legislators to give the agency's new chief, Bishop L. Robinson, a free hand.

That maneuver angered advocates and prompted criticism of the governor and Townsend by Duncan. "The message they sent to the public is, `It's business as usual,' " Duncan said.

With the election more than two years away, the lasting impact of the session is uncertain.

"The big admonishment is that the bounce out of this legislative session is kind of like a wave that leaves the shoreline. It's barely measured by the time it reaches other shores," Haller said.

"It's a long, long campaign."

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