Townsend aide fills indispensable role

Fleischmann more than chief of staff to lieutenant governor

September 24, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Polls show that Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's name is recognized by about 95 percent of Marylanders. Alan Fleischmann is known by so few that nobody's ever bothered to ask, and he would just as soon keep it that way.

Chief of staff is his job, but that title doesn't begin to describe his role in Townsend's professional life. Just about anywhere the lieutenant governor goes on public business, the relentlessly cheerful Fleischmann is likely to be at her side -- providing advice, support, unwavering devotion and occasional damage control.

Most successful politicians forge close relationships with a few key staff members, but the bond between Townsend and her chief of staff since she took office in 1995 is especially strong -- giving him enormous influence with the front-running candidate for governor in 2002.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael Barnes, a longtime Fleischmann friend, refers to him as "the major domo" in Townsend's operation. "He's a very important figure in Maryland today and promises to be even more important," Barnes said.

Some Maryland political observers wonder whether Townsend is too dependent on Fleischmann, who juggles many different roles in Townsend's political life. But others say he is one of her biggest political assets -- providing her with candid advice and pulling no punches.

"I have neither seen nor heard of anyone who does a better job for his or her boss than Alan does for Kathleen," said Adam Gelb, Townsend's former adviser on criminal justice issues.

Besides running the lieutenant governor's roughly 20-person office and acting as chief operating officer of the agencies she oversees, Fleischmann acts as Townsend's chief spokesman, behind-the-scenes spin doctor and most enthusiastic cheerleader.

The 36-year-old chief of staff is also Townsend's near-constant travel companion and close political adviser. He is her trusted emissary and soother of ruffled feathers. He is a family friend and godfather to Townsend's daughter Kerry, now 9. He and his wife, Dafna Tapiero, often socialize with the lieutenant governor and her husband, David Townsend.

If Townsend's so-far unannounced quest for the State House succeeds, Fleischmann is highly likely to step into the powerful role of gubernatorial chief of staff -- a position that in practice outranks Cabinet secretaries. He says he'll stay as Townsend's chief aide as long as she wants him, and the lieutenant governor apparently expects the relationship to continue.

In turn, Townsend is unsparing in her praise of Fleischmann.

"He is an enormously talented person. He cares about what we do in the state of Maryland. He cares about building a strong team," she said. "His greatest strength is that he understands what needs to be done to be effective."

Any weaknesses?

"He sometimes just makes me laugh at the most inappropriate times," Townsend said.

Their tight political partnership goes back to 1990, when Fleischmann attended a Democratic Party lunch and Townsend -- then a state education official with a 1986 congressional loss on her resume -- came in and sat next to him. As he recalls, they talked about Maryland and politics and the future of the Democratic Party.

"We just clicked," he said. "I never met anyone who struck me like she did."

Soon after, Fleischmann was running a speakers' series in Argentina sponsored by a private company. At a time when that country had just ended a long military dictatorship, he invited Townsend to give a series of speeches about human rights. "Kathleen was this huge hit," he said, and they became fast friends.

When Parris N. Glendening tapped Townsend to be his running mate in 1994, Fleischmann -- then a congressional staffer on a foreign affairs subcommittee -- drove her around the state to campaign on weekends.

Shortly after her election, Townsend asked Fleischmann to be her chief of staff. He jumped at the chance. "I took the job because of my love of government and politics," he said. "I wouldn't do it for anybody else. I'm a one-politician person."

Accordingly, Fleischmann said the No. 1 qualification he looked for in putting together Townsend's staff was loyalty. "Loyalty means everything to her," he said. The staff rule, he said, is: "Be loyal to the team. Defend without being defensive."

In her seven years as lieutenant governor, Townsend has had her share of moments of being on the defensive.

She was roundly criticized for management breakdown in the Department of Juvenile Justice, and her efforts to unclog the Baltimore court system have been repeatedly frustrated. Her occasional verbal gaffes have led some politicians to question whether she has what it takes to be governor.

Fleischmann insists that Townsend's critics just don't know her.

"She is, without question, the smartest person I've ever met," he said. "She is also extremely pragmatic and knows how to get things done."

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