Charting her own course

Contributions: Frances Hughes Glendening is working hard around the state and, seemingly, around the clock.

March 15, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

It's women's history month and Frances Hughes Glendening is maintaining a public schedule so hectic that both she and her aide are hoarse with colds.

Neither her slight cough nor her full-time job as a lawyer at the Federal Election Commission has slowed her dizzying lineup of talks and receptions and readings to kids in libraries across the state.

And neither has the fact that she and her husband, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, have been separated since July, making her the first first lady to carry on the role without a chief executive by her side.

By all accounts, Mrs. Glendening has no intention of wilting from public life. In what might seem a surreal twist, she has even taken on an added role as chair of the National Governors' Association Spouses Leadership Committee.

On Tuesday night, displaying not a hint of irony or discomfort, she delivered a lecture at St. John's College about Maryland first ladies throughout history.

She spoke of her predecessors' quirks and "unsung contributions" to the state. She referred to her son, Raymond frequently, and described her painstaking balance of work, motherhood and first lady duties. Not once did she mention the governor.

Audience members said afterward they admired her bravery. "She's leading her own life and pursuing her interests," said Dr. Clayton McCarl Sr. of Annapolis. "She's still the first lady; they just don't sleep in the same bed."

Those who have worked with her over the years are not surprised by Glendening's take-charge attitude. "I call her the first modern, feminist first lady," said Del. Sue Hecht of Frederick County, president of the General Assembly's Women's Caucus.

On more than one occasion, Hecht has heard Glendening say words to this effect: You're not getting rid of me that easily.

"It's not that she's not going quietly, it's that she's continuing to do her work," Hecht said. "She has moved issues of women and minorities ahead. ... She does it quietly, not for fanfare."

Take her current schedule:

Tonight she will go to a Mitchellsville reception for the Maryland Women's History Project. Tomorrow in Lanham she speaks at the 30th anniversary of a community crisis center.

This weekend she'll attend a student art exhibit in the State House, and Tuesday she accepts an award in Baltimore for being one of the Daily Record's top 100 Maryland women.

The next day she will be the hostess at a Government House celebration of Women's History Month - not the first time she has presided over an event at her husband's residence since they split.

She's spending the following weekend in her hometown of Cumberland, where she'll attend more Women's History Month events and read to children at a Garrett County library.

Glendening also has kept her eye on the legislative session. Last week, she wrote Hecht a two-page letter asking the House Appropriations Committee to reconsider its cut of $55,000 from the governor's proposed budget for the Maryland Commission for Women. (Members voted the money back in.)

In her six years as first lady, Glendening has focused on promoting hospice and mental health care, women's history and the arts.

"Many of the first lady's original initiatives have taken root and blossomed. They continue to need her leadership and support," said Susan Casey, her spokeswoman.

But Glendening's once-influential position in her husband's administration has faded. During his first gubernatorial campaign, it was she who suggested Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as his running mate. She later co-chaired his transition team and recommended Cabinet members.

The Glendenings' relationship is a delicate subject in Annapolis, usually accompanied by lowered voices and raised eyebrows.

Since late July, when the governor's office confirmed the two were living separately - she in their University Park home and he in the governor's mansion - neither side has said a word about the couple's marital status.

In Maryland, a couple must be separated a year before the court will grant a divorce, although exceptions are made in some circumstances. The first lady does have a lawyer, friends say.

Bruce L. Marcus, the governor's attorney, said the two are "doing very well and going about their business. At this point, they don't appear to need lawyers."

Despite Frances Glendening's composure and energetic schedule, those who know her say these past eight months have taxed her. Turning 50 and not celebrating her 24th wedding anniversary were especially hard, they say.

Since their separation, the Glendenings have appeared together once, at the dedication of the new Senate office building in January.

More conspicuous have been her absences: She wasn't at his State of the State address or at the opening dinner of the governors' association, which her husband chairs. She didn't go to the Democratic National Convention last summer, and they held separate Christmas parties.

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