Rumblings over insider Townsend's outside moves

July 07, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

NO ONE'S surprised when a Republican candidate for governor of Maryland wants to throw the rascals out. But what do we make of a Democrat who says, in effect, "Me too!" Since 1966, the rascals with power have all been Democrats.

And yet here we have Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend attempting to succeed her political benefactor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, by moving away from him. Her campaign literature refers generally to her leadership in the pursuit of various policies, not to the leadership of the Democratic team.

It's quite a turnaround. Rescued from obscurity by Mr. Glendening, she hardly mentions him.

She chose retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a Republican less than two months before, to be her running mate. She went outside the party, bypassing a gaggle of Democratic contenders.

She's running as an outsider - from the inside. Sure, she was bidding for votes among suburban white males, who may need some reassurance that a man would be in the house.

But her choice has deeper significance: She knows Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., her likely GOP opponent, will call her a creature of the Democratic coterie that has been hit by sharp criticism over the last few years. The peak of that opprobrium came last year when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz lamented a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. Higher echelons of the Democratic Party and its hangers-on provide evidence for his verdict.

Lobbyists make prodigious sums, cashing in on connections with the General Assembly leadership, virtually all Democratic. Two lobbyists were convicted of fraudulent behavior in pursuit of legislative business. For years, the leadership has struggled to free itself of cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyist/fund-raisers. Yet every year another scandal.

A Democratic senator was expelled and another lives under the cloud of an unreported loan from business interests. The Democrat-appointed Board of Regents appeared ready to give Mr. Glendening a cushy, $350,000-a-year post-gubernatorial landing spot in the chancellor's office.

The governor's new map of legislative districts, tailored to the advantage of Democrats, was thrown out by the Court of Appeals after a Democratic senator called to "yell" at the judges.

The state's financial house sags under a projected deficit of $2 billion - accumulated by way of Democrat-inspired promises that aren't covered by income forecasts.

So it's no wonder Ms. Townsend wants to be an outsider. Her running mate's credits even include a 1990s shakedown cruise as commandant of the Naval Academy, then immersed in problems. He's a house cleaner who's not from the tainted culture.

The Townsend strategy surely is defensible. But it's not without risk. Ominous murmurings of unhappiness arise from various Democratic quarters. The most intriguing: Secretary of State John T. Willis filed last week to oppose Comptroller William Donald Schaefer in the primary. That breaking of party discipline has been unheard of in Maryland, where entrenched Democrats never see opposition outside the ranks of loopy perennials. Mr. Willis is neither.

A scholarly politician who's toiled in Democratic vineyards for years, he has many contacts in Maryland. He will force the comptroller to campaign beyond token appearances - a good thing, but not a good Democrat thing.

Mr. Schaefer, who endorsed the first President Bush, maintains an awkward neutrality in the race for governor. He and many of his political and business friends like Mr. Ehrlich. He calls Ms. Townsend "my friend," but hasn't formally endorsed her. And he developed a visceral dislike of Mr. Glendening.

So here's the inside-out scoop: If Ms. Townsend pants after Mr. Schaefer's endorsement while subtly disrespecting Mr. Glendening and his coalition of teachers, union types and others, a few of them might go gunning for the comptroller and Ms. Townsend.

It's a bit of chaos reminiscent of an axiom followed with success in the 1950s by Theodore R. McKeldin, a Republican who figured out how to be mayor and governor. Maryland, he liked to say, has two Democratic parties: the ins and the outs. The trick for outnumbered Republicans is to marry the outs.

So, if there are angry "outs" in search of a candidate, Mr. Ehrlich offers himself. African-American voters, he hopes, could be among these if they are offended by Ms. Townsend's failure to choose a black running mate. She's running a classic Democratic campaign in this respect: assuming most blacks and liberals won't vote for a Republican. It's probably the safe and smart calculation. But it leaves the door open for her challenger, whose claim to the reformer's cape rings truer. His answer to Admiral Larson: Michael S. Steele, an African-American lawyer.

In the end, of course, voters will choose between Mr. Ehrlich - the home-grown, blue-collar representative of the anemic Republicans - and Ms. Townsend, a belated reformer hand-carried to high office by parts of a party she seems to be leaving behind.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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