Townsend's strategy: a sisterly patience

February 03, 2002|By Michael Olesker

KATHLEEN Kennedy Townsend grew up among seven brothers, not one of them a wallflower. This gives her insight into the male psyche. She believes she can look at today's man and see the former boy. Sometimes she looks at today's mayor of Baltimore and sees traces of the kid named Marty.

The lieutenant governor will not tell you this herself, because she is being kept under wraps these days. Heaven forbid she should say the wrong thing in front of a reporter. Last week, Townsend was asked about a clumsy letter written on her behalf to keep potential contributors away from Martin O'Malley. She sent words into the air, and more words, and none had anything to do with the actual question. Right away, everybody said: You see?

Meaning: She is still learning to talk under pressure. Sometimes she seems to be riffling through file cards in her head for just the right cliche. Sometimes her enthusiasm leaves her tongue-tied. She's a smart woman who sometimes sounds as if she is not.

But the male psyche, she thinks she knows. She hears O'Malley blasting the clumsy campaign letter last week, and blasting her leadership skills in other weeks, or her political skills, and she says nothing. Others say this is O'Malley building a case to run against her for governor. But Townsend, and the people bundled around her, think not.

They believe O'Malley will not run, and they believe Rep. Robert Ehrlich also will not run. And, by the end of the week, their thinking seemed momentarily firmer on at least Ehrlich. For weeks, as Ehrlich tested the gubernatorial waters, Townsend has been telling people she was sure he wouldn't run.

"He would have just jumped right in," she said, "instead of setting up conditions."

Last week, though still claiming to be "leaning" toward a run for governor, Ehrlich was now saying there were new pressures to consider. In Washington, he said, he was "getting beat up" by congressional colleagues, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who want to make sure Ehrlich's seat stays Republican.

But something else was simultaneously happening. In Annapolis, state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, infuriated by redistricting a few weeks back, had threatened to bolt the Democratic Party. Mitchell's rhetoric died down for a little while - but not, say Mitchell intimates, his determination to switch parties. Those same people say he and Ehrlich had talked about such a move. In Mitchell, Ehrlich might have a man to open doors previously shut to Republicans by many African-American voters.

Then, strictly by coincidence, on the same day came pronouncements from both Ehrlich and Mitchell. Ehrlich talked about his political commitments in Washington, and Mitchell took to the floor of the state Senate to talk about his personal finances.

As The Sun's Ivan Penn reported on Thursday, a half-dozen creditors have sued Mitchell for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills over the last five years - including the state of Maryland, which was forced to file a lien against him to collect unpaid taxes.

Thus, learning a day early about the story, Mitchell took to the Senate floor to call it "a personal attack." He knows better, but he went with the idea anyway. Let people imagine some media conspiracy, rather than the simple truth - that Mitchell didn't pay his bills.

But, with Robert Ehrlich simultaneously talking about pressure from Capitol Hill Republicans, and watching Mitchell sink into trouble, it seemed for the moment to leave Martin O'Malley as the lone trouble spot in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's drive to become governor.

And O'Malley, she believes, will not run either. She thinks she understands him. She grew up with people like him, who happened to be her own brothers.

Townsend sees herself as a builder of partnerships. This distinguishes her from her current boss, Parris Glendening, who has spent eight years in Annapolis, and people cannot wait for him to leave.

In O'Malley's head, Townsend is a problem for a few reasons. He believes she lacks the ability to be governor. He believes she feels politically antagonistic toward him - a young, liberal, Irish-Catholic Democrat with national ambitions, the same as her. And he believes she will therefore not give Baltimore all the help that she might, simply to avoid making O'Malley a hero.

Townsend has told insiders she could work through these ill feelings in no time at all. If O'Malley wants to talk to her, he only has to call. She'll be receptive. But she doesn't think he can do this. She thinks it has something to do with the male of the species needing to look strong. She saw it happen with the boys who are her brothers, who grew up to become men but held onto some of the stubbornness of the species.

Thus, some time not far down the road, Townsend believes it will fall to her to pick up a phone, and she will call O'Malley, and they will try to work things out in a peaceable manner.

And this, the Townsend camp believes, will lead to one serious contender this year to be governor of Maryland.

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