Townsend fails to scare away foes

March 31, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

ASHREWD candidate knows one certain way to win: arrange to have a weak opponent.

Better still, arrange no opponent at all -- a cakewalk. Raise enough money to scare off any challenger. Make yourself look unbeatable by wrapping up all the big endorsements, etc.

It's the politics of blue smoke and mirrors. Before television and the Internet, ward bosses thought they could whisper their version of truth in neighborhood bars and pretty soon they would hear their words on the street, the accepted wisdom of the people.

For years, it seems, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's backers have insisted that she's the heir inevitable: If only she can keep breathing until the general election in November 2002, she'll be governor.

So, Ms. Townsend's minions -- and they are many -- say she'll be unopposed if you don't count the Republican, and they don't.

But surely they do count the GOP's Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who announced his candidacy last week. Ms. Townsend knew, of course. She appeared at a competing event a few miles away from the Ehrlich announcement in Montgomery County, a prime battle ground this year -- and a bit of a tribute to Candidate Ehrlich. If she saw him as nothing, would she have bothered?

But that's not the last of the opponent issues frontrunner Townsend faces. There could actually be a Democrat.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has been doing some major-league teasing.

He had a people's fund-raiser (only $35 a head) the other day at Hammerjacks (where you go to get hammered, jack) -- to announce the minting of a new CD by his Irish band, O'Malley's March.

Ms. Townsend, who has several brothers, suggested months ago that dealing with Mr. O'Malley would be no problem because she's been dealing with unruly boys all her life. Somehow that observation hasn't stopped O'Malley's marching.

If he gets in the race, you could say Candidate Townsend has failed the first phase of the campaign, the field-shaping phase: two races, as many as two candidates, no certain cakewalks.

But she's not the only candidate with a personnel problem.

Mr. Ehrlich found himself jousting a bit with national Republicans when he announced he'd be leaving the House.

The GOP would like to maintain control of that body, so it needs to keep every winnable seat.

Mr. Ehrlich was a good bet, so the national manipulators want him to find a good candidate to run in his stead.

Republicans say he's decided to back former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, whose name looked good in a recent poll. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who ran two decent campaigns for governor in the 1990s, wants to compete for the seat, too, and apparently feels a bit iced by Mr. Ehrlich. That kind of unhappiness can hurt in the Maryland GOP, where partisans would rather nurse grudges and demand orthodoxy than win.

Nor does Mr. O'Malley escape the syndrome.

If he runs for governor, who will succeed him? Will it be City Council President Sheila Dixon? Some fear Ms. Dixon is not the Juan Dixon of politics and may not be ready for the mayor's office. That's the perception, anyway, and those who see Mr. O'Malley's confident energy as a tonic for the city would be unhappy about his departure, whoever was waiting to take over.

Rumors about that succession and how to manage it could well be a staple of this year's early campaign days. Here's one, totally untested theory, heard on the street: Ms. Dixon will leave her office to take a job (unspecified) and her place will be taken by Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and now president of the NAACP. Then, if Mr. O'Malley becomes governor, Mr. Mfume would become mayor.

Is that neat solution, or what? Of course, political leaders aren't responsible for filling the jobs they leave. More often they get into trouble for trying to dictate their successors.

So, what you're more likely to hear are explanations:

Mr. O'Malley will say, if he runs, that he can serve the city as well or better from Annapolis, where the money is.

Mr. Ehrlich will say he can't presume to choose a congresswoman for his old district. That will be the voters' job!

And Ms. Townsend will say, as she did last week, "I think there will be a free and vigorous debate over the next six months ..."

In the clubhouse, that sort of rhetoric is called the good government fallback.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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