KKT alone for better or worse

Legacy: In her campaign for governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend must decide how to handle the man who made her his running mate eight years ago.

May 12, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

WHEN LT. GOV. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend launched her campaign for governor last weekend, Gov. Parris N. Glendening slipped away - literally and figuratively.

Glendening left his spot among the rows of Maryland political leaders as Townsend's speech got under way, returning to Government House after learning that his pregnant wife, Jennifer E. Crawford, was suffering a health scare. (She turned out to be OK.)

But his absence was barely noticed. Neither the governor nor any other politician had been invited to address the diverse and enthusiastic crowd. Honors went instead to Townsend's husband, who is a teacher at St. John's College; a police chief and police officer; two school principals; and a businessman.

And while Townsend listed the accomplishments of the last eight years, she mentioned Glendening only in passing, thanking him for his leadership on Smart Growth.

As the campaign for governor unfolds during the next six months, Townsend faces a crucial decision over how to handle the man who lifted her from a Justice Department job eight years ago to make her his running mate.

The lieutenant governor's record as a public servant is defined largely by the role she has played as a loyal subordinate in the Glendening administration. She must convince voters that she was influential in crafting budgets and pushing legislation they favor.

At the same time, Townsend risks identifying herself too closely with a governor who scores poorly in opinion polls after two terms, and in the course of two terms has accumulated a raft of detractors who label him vindictive, petty and untrustworthy.

"The man is not wildly popular, and his coattails are probably about an inch long," says Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "She can't completely disown him, but she doesn't want to have him standing beside her in some places."

In the past year, Glendening divorced his wife of 25 years, married his deputy chief of staff and proposed eliminating the final stage of a state income tax cut. His last budget relied on about $800 million in one-time money to get through a recession, leaving difficult decisions for his successor.

Townsend's campaign knows that surveys show Glendening is not well-liked by voters, and that her approval rating has dropped with his.

A poll for The Sun conducted this year showed that 46 percent of Marylanders approved of Glendening's job performance, down from 56 percent a year earlier. His personal popularity was also troubled, with 46 percent of voters polled saying they had a favorable impression of the governor, and 43 percent saying their impression was unfavorable. During the same period, Townsend's favorability ratings dropped from 66 percent to 55 percent, and her unfavorable marks rose from 19 percent to 27 percent.

"It's an even larger problem than Al Gore faced," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican candidate for governor. "Glendening's numbers are terrible. He's going out of office as a very unpopular governor."

So, Townsend sticks to accomplishments rather than who was at the helm, claiming the foundation has been laid for future advances.

"We have accomplished a lot together," she said last weekend. "We have lifted Maryland from 41st to 15th in job creation. Our unemployment rate is consistently below the national average. We have the highest family income of any state in the country, and one of the lowest poverty rates, and the lowest child poverty rate.

"We have cut 30 taxes, returned $2.6 billion dollars to our taxpayers, and for the first time in three decades cut the personal income tax. We have balanced our budget for eight years in a row, and earned a Triple-A bond rating."

At the same time, she has identified only a few issues on which she differs from Glendening. Unlike the governor, she says she favors a highway in the Washington region, and would focus more on public school education than higher education.

Townsend's campaign opener "certainly was not a break from the governor, but she was emphasizing different priorities," said Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County state's attorney who has endorsed the lieutenant governor. "The message is, she's achieved a great deal as lieutenant governor. There's no one in a better position to lead the government than the person who has been part of running it for eight years."

Ehrlich, of course, disagrees. "Typical hyperbole," he says of her claims. "She was silent on all this."

Ehrlich is ready to pounce if Townsend stakes credit for the state's last few budgets, eager to point out that the state may be facing a $2 billion deficit in the near future, a combination of an $800 million gap between estimated spending and revenues, and a $1.3 billion price tag for the landmark education funding formula approved by the General Assembly last month.

"On the fiscal side, they are going to be joined at the hip, which is something we welcome," Ehrlich said.

Townsend is grappling with the same challenge facing all second-in-commands who try to succeed their bosses. In modern history, Maryland has had five lieutenant governors, but none has been elected governor.

Lieutenants, said Crenson, the political science professor, must "project a political profile that is independent of the No. 1 person, but you can't afford to disavow them completely, because you will be perceived to be duplicitous, or that you didn't know or take part in important decisions - and either way it looks bad."

Glendening, a former political science professor who recognizes the challenges faced by understudies with higher aspirations, said he was not bothered that he was not more visible during Townsend's kickoff.

"That's just normal things that occur," he said. "She wanted real people, not elected officials."

As for his involvement in the weeks ahead, the governor was noncommittal. "It's early," he said. "I don't even know that they have a campaign yet."

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