Townsend avoids legislative traps during session

Candidate-in-waiting picks issues carefully, cultivating leadership

February 24, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had time to kill.

The House speaker and other lawmakers were running late for a Townsend news conference, trapped in their chambers by bill amendments and subcommittee scheduling - details a lieutenant governor need not sweat.

So Townsend eased through a State House conference room, shaking hands with visitors and chatting with state officials, waiting patiently to unveil a package of drunken-driving bills she has named as one of her top legislative priorities.

It's no surprise that Townsend appeared relaxed. She had just returned from a four-day visit among the snowflakes and speed skaters in Salt Lake City, waving the Maryland banner as part of the Washington-Baltimore region's bid to play host to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As the 2002 General Assembly session passed its midpoint last week, this much has become clear: Townsend is doing her best to avoid getting stuck in the quicksand of the annual 90-day marathon.

Instead, she continues to cull the benefits of a visible statewide office with no constitutional responsibilities, traveling the state and country on political goodwill missions while pursuing a few select policy issues.

It is a safe strategy at a time when stakes are high. During her final months as lieutenant governor, and in particular when lawmakers are huddled in Annapolis, Townsend's moves are increasingly scrutinized as she prepares to make the transition from team player to full-fledged candidate for governor.

If she wins election, her success as chief executive will depend largely on her skill in steering an agenda through the General Assembly. So her ability to swing votes in key committees or know when to compromise on a bill could serve as an indicator of future performance.

Townsend critics say she has sidestepped the most contentious issues facing the legislature: a budget mess and the political redistricting process.

"I don't even think I've seen her this session," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the House minority leader from Perry Hall. "From the appearances of it, she has not been playing a role in the legislative process. If she expects to be elected governor, she needs to create her own identity, or her identity is going to be the Glendening-Townsend legacy of taxes, borrowing and spending."

`I do get involved'

But the lieutenant governor counters that she is working hard on domestic violence and criminal justice issues, in addition to the drunken-driving bills discussed Tuesday.

"I do get involved," she said. "I think I've been actually quite engaged in those areas that I think are critical."

The time is not right, her supporters say, to plot a more distinctive course.

"She's got to go with her instincts," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Being a partner with the governor has gotten her this far."

To be sure, the lieutenant governor's performance before the General Assembly is an arcane topic, one not at the forefront of the minds of voters grappling with a slumping economy and a post-Sept. 11 world.

"The broader voting public is not going to pay much attention to the scorecard from the legislative session," said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. "It's an inside-baseball scorecard of the political intelligentsia and the media."

"Her objectives should be increased visibility, and establishing herself around several core issues which distinguish her with the body politic," Haller said. "The third objective, and probably the most important, is to avoid any serious problems. The biggest concern is not to get embroiled in controversy."

Townsend staked out a few issues of her own last month. On the opening day of the session, she told lawmakers she wanted to work with them to pass stiffer penalties for repeat drunken drivers and make it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in a car.

She also wants to link the communication systems of police, fire and state emergency workers and to curb the ability of judges to reduce criminal sentences years after they are imposed.

It is a limited agenda, but not without some peril. Some black lawmakers oppose a change in judicial reconsideration, saying it removes a safety valve for African-Americans who may be unjustly imprisoned or who reform themselves through the corrections system.

"This is what she defines as a law-and-order issue which moves the party to the center at the expense of African-Americans," said Del. Salima Siler Marriott, chairwoman of Baltimore's House delegation. "She discounts us as a force that would block her strategic move."

The agenda also skirts the toughest issues before lawmakers. Maryland faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenditures, and many of the solutions under discussion are one-time fixes, such as more borrowing and tapping reserves. A similar problem is expected to face a new governor next year.

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