Townsend enlists help for shaky campaign

White was key architect of Glendening's '98 win

Election 2002

August 16, 2002|By David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig | David Nitkin and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has enlisted a key architect of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 1998 re-election victory to help manage her sputtering bid for governor, campaign officials said yesterday.

Karen White, Glendening's communications director, will join the Townsend campaign next week. She will share an office with Alan Fleischmann, the campaign chairman who has been the subject of recent criticism as Townsend's once-sizable lead has evaporated.

White, Fleischmann and Townsend held several long conversations during the past two days about White's role in the campaign. She agreed to take the position at a meeting with Fleischmann yesterday during a break at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City, campaign officials said.

"Maryland is a very Democratic state, and we have a great candidate, and I'm excited to be part of the team that is going to win," White said.

While the addition of White represents a major shift in the campaign, her hiring comes amid several other changes - all part of a staff shuffling that Townsend hopes will reinvigorate her chances.

Michael Morrill, who was her campaign spokesman until last week, is now working on communications strategy. On Tuesday, Townsend announced with fanfare that state Sen. Clarence W. Blount of Baltimore would be a "senior adviser."

The campaign is also talking to former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, about providing advice through the national Democratic Governors' Association, with which she has a contract.

`Best at her job'

But clearly White is seen by Townsend as key.

"Kathleen knows her, knows what she can do, and wanted her," said a Democrat close to the campaign. "She is the best at her job. That's what we're getting - someone who can run an on-the-ground, person-to-person operation like nobody else can."

Townsend's is the second Maryland gubernatorial campaign that White has swooped in to rescue. In the spring of 1998, Glendening was losing ground to Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey. He fired campaign manager Tim Phillips and hired White, then head of Idaho's Democratic Party, who is credited with orchestrating his win.

Since then, White has worked as a deputy chief of staff for Townsend and as a senior adviser to Glendening.

Known as a crackerjack grass-roots organizer, White, 36, will take over the "coordinated campaign," the effort to elect Maryland Democrats across the board, from governor and Congress to county executive and General Assembly.

In the Townsend machine, she will fill in precisely where Fleischmann is weakest, those who know him say. And her hiring means that she and Fleischmann will have to repair their relationship, which reportedly has been strained.

But there is no talk of Fleischmann's leaving the campaign. He and his boss are fiercely loyal to each other - even when their arguments leave them fuming for days. He is godfather to Townsend's youngest daughter, 10-year-old Kerry.

"If you want to use the war-room mentality, I feel that now is the time to bring the best and the brightest in the state into our campaign," Fleischmann said. "The sign of a good manager, especially at wartime, is to bring in the best lieutenants."

Fleischmann has known Townsend since 1990 and has been close by her side as a chief of staff since 1995. He is credited with shepherding her from a relatively anonymous lieutenant governor to a gubernatorial candidate who managed to vanquish four potentially serious Democratic challengers.

"Three years ago, many people wanted to run for governor," Townsend said. "We're going into this election without a primary. Now it's all been forgotten. It has not always been inevitable."

Democrats in Maryland and elsewhere have been grumbling for weeks about the state of her campaign. As recently as January, she enjoyed a 15-point lead over Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the likely Republican nominee. Since then, Democrats have watched anxiously as her advantage has dwindled.

Suddenly, her candidacy looks shaky - even among core Democratic groups such as African-Americans and unions - and major supporters have begun pointing fingers at Fleischmann. Several Democrats, including Glendening and Rep. Albert Wynn, have urged Townsend to shake up her team.

Plotting a solution

Even Townsend's running mate, retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, told elected officials at the MACO conference that he was planning to ask her to alter the campaign staff. "I'm going to be very blunt with her," he told one politician.

Many note that Fleischmann has never run a statewide campaign and sometimes insulates his boss from advice. "I'm hearing that from a lot of people," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, one of the Democrats who considered challenging Townsend and decided against it.

"I think that there's a general feeling that the campaign should not be in the position it is at the present time, and that whoever is directing the campaign can and should be doing better," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"Alan's a fine policy guy, but he doesn't have the experience to run a statewide campaign of this caliber," another leading Democrat said.

For about a month, the state's Democratic elite have been plotting a solution. Wynn called Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, who in turn called Townsend and offered to help her find talent if she needed it, a DNC spokesman said. Glendening met with Townsend and expressed his concerns Sunday.

One of White's first assignments will be to quell the dissatisfaction that many Maryland politicians feel toward the Townsend campaign, especially over her secretive choice of Larson, who is white and a former Republican.

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