Finally, Townsend starting to respond to Ehrlich's jabs

August 11, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE MORNING newspaper, Robert Ehrlich's taking another shot at Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. He says she's "never cast a vote anywhere and never been elected to anything on her own." Then he's hitting her on the juvenile-boot-camp scandal: a disgrace that happened on her watch, and an added disgrace that it's costing the state $4.6 million in legal reparations.

Townsend's response? Who knows? The morning newspaper quotes various campaign spokesmen, but not her. Then there's a separate story about her failing to speak up for herself through the campaign summer. The television news reporters talk of her failure to answer "in-depth questions" (an odd charge from a medium that majors in 10-second sound bites). When she appears in public, Townsend uses phrases like "indispensable destiny," whatever that means.

"Indispensable destiny?" said Patricia Welch, dean of Morgan State University's School of Education and Urban Studies. "Too many syllables."

Welch laughed about it, but she's right. She was just finishing breakfast at Cross Keys the other morning when Townsend walked into the place. Welch is a Townsend supporter. But she senses, as so many have, that this is a gubernatorial campaign in which the Republican Ehrlich swaggers confidently and smacks verbally, and the Democrat Townsend turns the other cheek, talks obliquely of people's "indispensable destiny" and offers hesitant, broken-record platitudes.

"Why," she was asked now, "are you being so ladylike?"

"I am a lady," Townsend said.

But she's a lady in some trouble.

New poll numbers show Ehrlich narrowing her lead to a point or two. Among blacks, she's dropped noticeably. Among women, more slippage. In East Baltimore the other day, Del. Carolyn Krysiak was remarking on it.

"I went over to the Polish Women's Alliance," Krysiak said. "You know, nobody should be stronger for Kathleen than these people. I mean, they're women, they're Catholic. And they're saying, `We like her, but we're waiting for her to stick up for herself.'"

"How do you respond to that?" Townsend was asked a few days later.

"I'm a fighter," she said. "We gotta fight the good fight. For a better world."

Gad.

Those are just words. This woman comes from a history, and so does Ehrlich. Like it or not, her legacy is the liberal Democrat legacy of wanting equal rights for minorities, wanting economic benefits for working-class people, wanting government intervention. Like it or not, Ehrlich's legacy is the conservative Republican history of standing in the way of such things, of Newt Gingrich bullying and government downsizing and George W. Bush tax cuts for the rich.

And Ehrlich is spending this campaign posturing himself as a moderate, and Townsend has seemed reluctant to say this in public.

"OK," she said now. She sat in silence for a couple of beats. "OK. Yesterday I went to a senior center. They were saying, `We have three major expenses: rent, food - and prescription drugs.' When I say we need government help on prescription drugs, and he [Ehrlich] says it's unwise ... "

Her voice trailed off. A non-profit coalition, Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, asked the candidates to sign a pledge to make prescription drugs more affordable for senior citizens and others. Townsend signed; Ehrlich has not.

"These are people," she said now, "who have worked their whole lives and stretched their finances, and this is not the way things are supposed to wind up. I mean, [Ehrlich] says he came from the working class. But once he got into Congress, what did he do for those working people?

"Time and time again, he's voted against them. Social Security, minimum wage, loans for college, health care. On every score that says we have a responsibility to others, he votes against. This is a guy who was helped along by school aid, by people who said, `We'll make it possible for you.' And he gets to Congress and forgets other people who need that kind of help.

"When it was popular, when Newt Gingrich was bullying the whole country, that's where he wanted to be, that was his gang. Every vote, this enormous arrogance. Every vote, this disdain for working men and women."

Thus are lines drawn starkly in the political sand.

Townsend still has a history to defend. She's against slots, saying they'll bring crime and hurt small business. But the evidence is shaky. She was there when the state ran up its big deficit. And the juvenile boot camps, a disgrace to this state, were her baby.

"[Guards] were doing terrible things," she said. "And the news did not travel up. The chain of command did not work. I take responsibility. But I also take responsibility for making changes to fix it."

And now, perhaps, come changes in her approach to this political campaign.

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