Townsend to launch race for governor

Rivals searching for flaws in lieutenant governor

May 05, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

She has almost $6 million in the bank and an almost unlimited ability to raise more. Virtually everyone in Maryland knows who she is -- and polls suggest most like her. Even those who don't know her certainly recognize her maiden name.

As Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend officially launches her campaign for governor at an Annapolis rally today, she seems to be in an enviable position politically.

But Republicans -- and even a few Democrats -- see cracks to exploit as they seek to derail Townsend's quest to become Maryland's first female chief executive in November.

Sure, they say, Townsend is ahead in the polls and has already picked up dozens of endorsements. They acknowledge she's personally popular and will claim credit as second-in-command of an administration known for its support of public schools, higher education and the environment.

And then there's that famous Kennedy name, which instantly attracts attention and, more significantly, opens campaign donors' checkbooks nationwide.

So why would Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a four-term congressman, give up a relatively safe shot at re-election to take her on? And why is Mayor Martin O'Malley, seen as a rising Democratic star, gambling with his political future by flirting with a primary challenge?

"Martin sees, and I see, vulnerabilities," says Ehrlich, the expected Republican nominee. "If we didn't see them, we wouldn't be in the race."

Her opponents -- Ehrlich, and O'Malley if he decides to run -- will paint Townsend as a politician who has never been elected to office on her own, a novice who lacks experience making tough decisions. Her occasional verbal gaffes, and the perception that she avoids unscripted exchanges, will be highlighted.

Critics will try to convince voters that Maryland is a state going in the wrong direction, spending beyond its means and headed for fiscal disaster. Ehrlich will argue that he would curb spending, while O'Malley has criticized the revenue lost to an election-year tax cut.

`An empty dress'

"There's a strong suspicion the lieutenant governor is an empty dress, that's she's not up to the job and has never demonstrated leadership," says Kevin Igoe, a veteran Republican campaign consultant. "She's been walking two steps behind for eight years saying, `Me, too.'"

Ehrlich, 44, argues that the thousands of votes he has taken during eight years in the General Assembly and eight years in Congress make him better qualified. "She's never voted. She has no record," he says.

Townsend, 50, rejects such talk, saying the campaign will give her the opportunity to spotlight both her individual record and that of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.

"The thing about being governor is that you set a vision and you manage agencies," Townsend says. "It's a different set of job skills [than being a legislator]. What I have done as lieutenant governor is manage billion-dollar agencies."

Townsend supporters recognize that without a lengthy legislative record, her opponents won't have the opportunity to scrutinize each vote. In 1998, Glendening ads effectively pounced on several votes cast by Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

"I don't know that she needs a record in the sense of her own record," says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat. "She will be tied to the Glendening administration record. ... It was the Glendening-Townsend team. You get to take credit for the sunshine, but you also take credit for the rain."

By contrast, Miller warns that Ehrlich's actions during the Newt Gingrich-led House Republican revolution will have consequences. "He has got a hundred party votes that will come back to haunt him in November," Miller says.

Record to build on

For Townsend, the most significant record will be what has occurred in Maryland since 1994 -- a period that both Democrats and Republicans characterize as the Glendening-Townsend administration.

Townsend quickly rattles off a series of statistics: huge increases in state support for public schools, significant improvement in the ratings of the state's public university programs, a jump in job-growth rankings from 41st nationally to 15th, a 10 percent cut in income taxes, and top marks from bond agencies.

"We have built a strong foundation for prosperity," Townsend says. "We have a lot to build on."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and other Democratic leaders say they hope Republicans turn the election into a test of the quality of life in Maryland.

"I can't believe there are many people around who would say, `I'm worse off today than I was eight years ago,'" says Taylor, who remains in the running to be Townsend's pick for lieutenant governor.

Critics say Townsend's task is to show where she has played a role. They are sure to focus on juvenile justice -- an area in which she publicly took ownership. The state is paying a multimillion-dollar legal settlement to youths who were mistreated in now-closed boot camps.

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