999 cars join KKT campaign -- sort of

License-plate sequence drives home a lesson on coincidence in politics

July 28, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

KKT. Those, of course, are the well-known initials of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic candidate for governor.

So what are they doing on the license plate of that recently registered Maryland car that just cruised by? Could this be a blatant attempt by the lieutenant governor to take advantage of her high position in the state government? Some kind of subliminal campaign tactic? Dare we utter the word "Plategate?"

Actually, it's just a coincidence for the folks in the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

The license plate bureaucrats at the MVA have been working their way doggedly through the alphabet since 1987. They started with the letter N and continued in alphabetical and numerical orderly sequence.

And 15 years later, on March 22, they found themselves at KKT. That was three days before Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced he would run against Townsend.

When asked about it this week, neither side had noticed the new plates.

"I must confess I am completely ignorant of this," said Len Foxwell, spokesman for Townsend. "What can I say? Once again, the great ones create their own luck. We take it as a good omen. The plates will be seen for years to come ... as will Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."

At Ehrlich headquarters, spokesman Paul Schurick was equally in the dark.

"I'm going to start looking for them now," he said. "To be fair, they should not have gone out. But initials on 999 more cars in Maryland ain't that big a deal. As long as there are no hearts on the plate."

Unfortunately for Ehrlich, the MVA issued its RLE plates 13 years ago.

Not that that unharmonious sequence is likely to strike a chord with anyone, Republican or Democrat.

While having about 1,000 cars traveling around the state with your initials front and center (not to mention rear and center) might seem an advantage, it's unlikely that Townsend will benefit.

You might think that she could offer a KKT plate to faithful fund-raisers, but all the plates in question have already been passed out. The MVA currently is at KTT.

And, when it comes to billboard value, when was the last time that voters looked at the letters on the plates of cars whizzing by or even those lined up in the mall parking lot?

In fact, how many voters even know the letters on their own license plates? Also, there's the problem of volume: The 999 new KKT plates are floating around in a sea of 4.5 million current Maryland license plates.

Which is not to say the issuance of the KKT plates isn't good for a few election-year chuckles.

Debbie Rogers, the MVA's division manager for vehicle services, hooted long and loud when asked about the timing of the KKT series. She said she never made the connection between the plate and the candidate.

"The prison just makes whatever's next on the list, it doesn't matter who's running for office," she said. "This cracks me up. There's no grand plan. Honestly, nobody here even thought about that. It's the truth."

Sudhir Thapar, who won't be voting this November for either Townsend or Ehrlich because he's not a U.S. citizen, hasn't thought about it, either.

The Glen Burnie pizzeria manager has the new KKT plates on his cherry red Hyundai Elantra and he doesn't have a clue what it means.

"I have no political leanings," he said. "I never noticed."

One Republican reportedly was miffed at receiving the tags and tried to exchange them. But the only option for people who don't like the letters on their plates typically is to spend $20 more for a specialized tag such as the Chesapeake Bay plate.

Had MVA officials connected Townsend's landmark initials and campaign to the tags before they were printed, they say they might have stopped the prison plate press, something they do regularly when an inappropriate alphabetical combination turns up. There are no KKK plates, for instance.

"Anything that's even remotely rude or offensive isn't used," said Rogers. "People take their plates very seriously - you'd be surprised. When we hit the PPP combination, people did not want that tag. Go figure."

But social sensitivity isn't the only reason combinations got cut. JFK was rejected for fear the tag would be so popular people might trade in their plates prematurely to get it, said Rogers.

Of course, so few politicians are identified by their initials alone that for most it would be irrelevant. Do the initials WDS or MO or PNG automatically make one think William Donald Schaefer or Martin O'Malley or Parris N. Glendening?

Now, back to KKT. The state license plate system finally reached the K series on Oct. 5.

Years ago, MVA officials decided to cut KFC from the lineup because it might be viewed as a promotion for the fast-food chain, said Rogers.

So shouldn't KKT have been pulled on the same grounds?

`The plates were printed more than a year ago," said Rogers. "I don't think anybody has noticed. We haven't received one phone call on it."

Officials decided which ones to eliminate in the late '80s and have made few changes since, she said.

Rogers also noted that Ehrlich's RLE plates were issued in 1989 (during his second term as a state delegate from Baltimore County). That gives her a little peace of mind.

"We still have RLEs out on the street, so I guess we've given them both equal time," she said.

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