Shelling out for clambake or crab feast

Fund-raisers: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in Hyannis Port, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in Arbutus, hold different kinds of campaign events.

Election 2002

July 21, 2002|By Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin | Sarah Koenig and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

HYANNIS PORT, Mass. -- Under a perfect summer sky, onto a perfect narrow country lane they walked, between pink roses, orange lilies and an impossibly lush bounty of blue hydrangeas.

First the guests -- about 80 of them in all -- stopped for drinks on Ethel Kennedy's porch. Then they followed a path alongside Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's house and onto his famous lawn, where a peaked white tent tucked under the dune awaited them. Just beyond that, rocking lightly in the calm blue water, Uncle Teddy's sailboat joined a few dozen others to create a scene of almost cliched seaside beauty.

Of all her fund-raising events, this annual dinner represents Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's most overt use of her genetic gift: an inextricable link to those iconic Kennedy images from Hyannis Port that have been stamped into the American imagination for decades.

The power of the spot wasn't lost on Josh Bernstein, who runs a Washington real estate investment company. As he disembarked from the school bus that brought groups of guests from a nearby hotel, he gazed down the lane to the Kennedy "compound," which he was about to see for the first time.

Like many Americans of a certain age, he can summon pictures of rambunctious Kennedys playing touch football on the lawn. "There is a sort of mythical quality about the place," he said. "And I'm not a big romantic about politicians and political fund-raisers."

The setting is a potent force, both symbolically and financially.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Townsend's Republican challenger (who will have his share of posh fund-raisers), went instead yesterday for counter-programming.

While the Kennedy family welcomed Democratic contributors, Ehrlich was holding a $20-a-head crabs-and-beer event in Arbutus.

"We're having fun today, obviously" said the congressman, who grew up in a nearby rowhouse where his parents still live. "The lieutenant governor is home, and I am home."

In Hyannis Port, no crab mallets were in evidence.

Someone drove by in a nail-polish-red Ferrari. Next, Max Kennedy, Townsend's brother, came in on a red Honda scooter, saying, "Hi, officer," to the local policeman posted at the end of the road to keep out the uninvited, including reporters.

At the $2,000-a-head dinner, which the Townsend campaign said would raise about $120,000, the lieutenant governor sat at the head table primarily with Maryland donors. Among them were Robert N. Wildrick, the chief executive officer of the Jos. Bank clothing company; Edward C. Sullivan, of the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department; J. Craig Venter, former president of Celera Genomics Group; Howard Friedman, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council; and Ronnie Buerger, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

Alan Fleischmann, Townsend's spokesman, said Senator Kennedy introduced his niece to the guests, joking that as the oldest of 11 children, she learned to be an executive at a very young age.

Townsend recalled memories of her youth in Hyannis, when she would listen to her uncles talk about the civil rights movement over dinner.

And she remembered the touch football games. When her father instructed her that if she could touch the ball, she could catch it, she said, that became a "great metaphor" for her life.

The party was billed as a casual, intimate affair. "The Kennedy Family invites you to join them for an old-fashioned clambake supper," the invitation read.

There was no band. There were no valet parking, no tuxedos, no fanciful desserts. Rather, her campaign let it be known that Townsend and her mother picked out the seafood at a local market that very morning. They cut the flowers themselves from their garden (and mixed them with imported black-eyed Susans in honor of Maryland).

Guests ate their clam chowder, chicken and corn off Ethel Kennedy's dishes, using her forks and wiping their mouths with her table linens.

The associations are unavoidable and abundant. The rocky beach is the same one where a solitary Rose Kennedy walked after her son Bobby was assassinated in June 1968.

Here is the porch where baby Caroline, sitting on her father's knee, grabbed her mother's pearls and drew them to her mouth. Here is the flagpole where Jack and Jackie posed on Election Night 1960.

So, the unspoken contract of the evening is this: Those willing to pay $2,000 a ticket can be part of the family for a few hours on a cool summer night.

Last night's was the fifth Hyannis party. Townsend and her mother first put it on in 1996. (It was canceled in 1999 when JFK Jr.'s plane crashed, and again last year because of the Sept. 11 attacks.)

In 2000, President Bill Clinton was the guest of honor, and Townsend's campaign raked in about $800,000.

The compound, where Townsend and her 10 siblings spent many summers, makes an easy target for Ehrlich, who is marketing his candidacy as a story of blue-collar grit.

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