Townsend courts press at lunch

THE POLITICAL GAME

Strategy: Lieutenant governor's off-the-record meals are meant to build rapport with journalists.

April 09, 2002|By David Nitkin and Howard Libit | David Nitkin and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

IN HER CAUTIOUS pre-campaign, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has done more than line up endorsements and raise money to scare away challengers.

She's begun reaching out to members of the press, inviting them for private, off-the-record lunches designed to build rapport and make connections.

The lunches aren't altogether revealing. Townsend refuses to engage in political gossip or disclose her true position on topics such as the state budget, which will contain a $780 million shortfall to be filled by the next governor. Her chief of staff, Alan Fleischmann, is at the table to deflect tough questions and fill pauses.

The strategy is smart. It's not a good idea, the adage goes, to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. And the converse is true: Being chummy with the media can mean kinder coverage, as a bantering, back-slapping George W. Bush found during his election campaign.

Josh Kurtz, political editor of the Montgomery County-based Gazette newspapers, said his time with Townsend last week exceeded expectations.

"It was very pleasant and very interesting," Kurtz said. "Even though I've known her for six years, it was the first time we've sat down one on one."

Townsend staffers may want to accelerate the invitation schedule. Some members of the Annapolis press corps are wondering why they haven't received a phone call yet.

"I'm sure she'll get around to the capital city newspaper when she gets a chance," said Sara Marsh, a reporter with The Capital in Annapolis.

Margie Hyslop of the Washington Times said the lunch idea was "nice, but it's time to lower the drawbridge and open Mrs. Townsend to questions and discussion with the public and the press at large."

Douglas R. Tallman of The Frederick News-Post said he would reject the outreach.

"I don't want to break bread with her," Tallman said. "If I eat with her, I'll also have to eat with [GOP candidates] Bob Ehrlich and Ross Pierpont and [Libertarian] Spear Lancaster, and I don't have that many free lunch dates on my calendar."

Montgomery Democrats may vie for credit on aid

The General Assembly's final week of negotiations over a landmark package of aid to public schools offered a glimpse into the fight in store to unseat Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and how Democratic contenders will be looking for any edge they can find.

First, Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. waged a battle in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to ensure Montgomery County got the money it felt it deserved from the state.

By the end of a raucous voting session, Van Hollen had managed to amend the proposal to give Montgomery not just the $70 million county officials had been seeking, but another $10 million during the life of the six-year school aid bill.

"This doesn't take a penny away from any jurisdiction," Van Hollen said. "This gives Montgomery County its fair share."

Not to be outdone, Del. Mark K. Shriver - the other leading contender in the Democratic primary for Morella's seat - was there fighting when the legislation was sent over to the House.

The House leadership was resisting the Senate's plan, preferring to pass just a two-year proposal. But Shriver quietly assembled enough votes on the House Ways and Means Committee to back the Senate plan - including the Van Hollen amendments.

"This was the time for us to act," Shriver said. "We needed to do what was best for the children of Montgomery County and all of Maryland."

When Van Hollen and Shriver leave Annapolis today and hit the congressional campaign trail in earnest, both likely will claim to be the candidate who brought home education aid to Montgomery.

Governor prepared to hold lavish end-of-session party

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was expected to hold the most lavish sine die party of the year, erecting an enormous white tent on the front lawn of Government House. The guest list for the midnight bash, featuring a reggae band and barbeque, included most members of the General Assembly, staff and interest groups.

Spokesman Michael Morrill could not provide a price tag, but said any cost above the typical end-of-session party would be paid through private funds, including the Government House trust and Glendening's own checkbook.

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