Townsend finds voice in speaking for herself

May 23, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SHE STOOD THERE in the noontime sunlight Monday, in front of Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, and for a few minutes everything was in its place. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had Paul Sarbanes on one side of her, and Barbara Mikulski on the other. They are steady hands. They could hold hers.

And then Townsend began to speak, and everybody braced themselves. She has a reputation that precedes her. Critics still sneer at her dizzy exclamation from the Ravens' Super Bowl win 18 months ago, when she gushed, "I loved it when we made that football." They make it sound as if she committed homicide. Or they chuckle over her saying that people speak "Hispanish."

Townsend's articulation has become part of her political baggage. She delivers a speech with all the flair of Lawrence Welk attempting a Duke Ellington riff. She stumbles and starts over. You ask a question, and her hems are followed by haws. She seems to mull things over for a while, as though thinking, "What did that index card tell me to say? What would Parris have me say? What would my family heritage have me say?"

So she had a little surprise for everybody Monday, when the noontime crowd gathered for the Mikulski and Sarbanes endorsements. Their backing isn't exactly news -- Did anybody imagine the two Democratic senators would endorse Republican Robert Ehrlich? -- but it did send a sorry signal to Martin O'Malley, who's still mulling over his own run for governor.

When Townsend spoke, it was better than expected. A little stumble here, a stutter there. We all have the same problems in daily conversation, but we expect the politicians to be better. They say the same things so often that they're supposed to have it down like a mantra. And when they don't, we attribute it to some softness of the brain.

Never mind that Townsend's a graduate of Harvard, and never mind her law degree -- why, we ask, does she seem to stumble when she opens her mouth in public?

Except Monday, there was a different manner. She seemed comfortable with her ideas. She punched the air confidently each time she got to a key word, and put the right emphasis in the right places. She didn't lose herself in the thickets of elocutionary byways.

When she finished her speech, she wandered through the Broadway crowd and talked easily with those gathered. She seemed like someone who'd finally learned that she's more capable of delivering a public utterance than previously suspected.

"Speech lessons?" somebody asked Alan Fleischmann, the former Townsend chief of staff who's now her campaign manager.

"Nope," he said, looking quite pleased. "It started the day she officially announced [she was running for governor]. She said to me, `This is the most liberating day of my life.' It's the difference between being able to speak for yourself, and walking down the hall to clear it before you tell people what you think."

The reference to "down the hall" will puzzle no one. Parris Glendening was always there. For eight years, having been gifted by this governor with the No. 2 job in state government, Townsend played the loyal serf. She never criticized, never gossiped, never tried to steal the spotlight -- and never wavered from the party line, even when she disagreed.

When it looked as if she had an idea she couldn't clearly articulate, Fleischmann was saying now, she was actually trying to speak in two voices: her own, as filtered through the editing process of the governor's.

Now we'll begin to discover differences. The Republican Ehrlich, knowing he's up against 2-to-1 voting margins, will try to paint Townsend with every sin of the Glendening years, real and imagined (while hoping no one paints Ehrlich with the excesses connected to all Gingrich Republicans).

It doesn't matter that the lieutenant governor's job has no power. In Ehrlich's translation, Townsend will carry every ounce of guilt for the state's spending, and its financial dilemmas.

It's a strange mission facing Townsend. It's not that Glendening's been a bad governor. In many ways, he's been a good one. He's just an unlikable human being, suspected of manipulation and double-talking in search of political advantage, and caught repeatedly in acts of naked hypocrisy.

Townsend has to weigh connections to each of those Glendenings. Maybe Alan Fleischmann's right, maybe we'll hear a new Townsend now that she's out from Glendening's thumb. But it's not just projecting confidence. She's got to let Martin O'Malley know how much she'll help the city, so he can feel comfortable staying at City Hall.

And she's got to show Robert Ehrlich he can criticize Parris Glendening all he wants -- because it's no longer Glendening's voice being heard when Townsend opens her mouth.

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