Campaign `addict' to the rescue again

Manager: Democrats hope Karen White, who is helping lead the Townsend team, can re-create her 1998 Glendening success.

Election 2002

August 20, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The Townsend campaign's not-so-secret weapon sat on the beach last week with her husband and two small children in Ocean City, savoring her last days of relative freedom before the war begins.

Karen White, 36, probably looked like a lot of other young mothers out there on the sand. But she was likely the only one trying hard not to think about Maryland's Democratic Party - and indeed the national party - banking on her competence.

In any case, it wouldn't be the first time. White was snatched up last week to help lead Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign precisely because she parachuted in to save Gov. Parris N. Glendening's flagging campaign in 1998. In large part, his victory was rightfully White's, many Democrats say.

Her hiring comes as some of the state's leading Democrats are openly fretting about Townsend's drooping poll numbers. They have blamed her closest aide and campaign chairman, Alan H. Fleischmann, who has never run a statewide campaign. The news that White was joining up brought relief in some political circles.

"It definitely heartens me because I have a great deal of respect for Karen White," said former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings. "She is terrifically good at taking responsibility, at organizing. She knows how to delegate authority. She knows the various political groups across the state and how to galvanize them. ...

"If Kathleen had asked me, and she didn't, I would have said it was a very sound, wise move," Tydings said.

Though White's campaign skills are discussed with reverence, she is only human. On Election Day in 1998, for example, a wave of anxiety caused the campaign veteran to throw up outside a polling station.

Her worries at that time were warranted. Glendening had squeaked into office in 1994 by fewer than 6,000 votes. In the spring of 1998, he was 10 points behind the same Republican adversary, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Furthermore, he was rather unpopular and powerful friends weren't leaping to his aid. His campaign among rank-and-file supporters was anemic.

Some of his campaign staff, including Fleischmann, had heard White speak at a Democratic National Committee conference, and decided to recruit her as campaign manager. At the time, she was running the Democratic Party of one of the most Republican states in the nation - Idaho.

What they wanted then, as now, was her knack for organizing grass-roots helpers and then luring regular voters to the polls. Sharing an office with Fleischmann, she set to work identifying loyal constituencies across the state.

She organized phone banks and voter lists. She made sure her candidate visited churches in Baltimore every Sunday. She showered Maryland in signs and bumper stickers. And under her watch, the campaign launched a series of television ads in late October attacking Sauerbrey's record and challenging her commitment to civil rights.

On Election Day, it was White who was responsible for the sound trucks that trolled the streets, and for the "flushers" who went door to door encouraging people to vote. White made sure coffee and doughnuts were waiting when they arrived.

Hers was the most sophisticated field operation anyone had seen here. The result was that Glendening won soundly. Compared with 1994, his numbers shot up, especially in Baltimore, where he won 81 percent of the vote, and in Montgomery County, where he took 62 percent.

White was 32 at the time but had more than a dozen campaigns in almost as many states behind her. A native of Macomb County, Mich., White had parents who were active in politics and the labor movement.

She graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in political science and education, and briefly taught high school before taking a job in U.S. Sen. Carl Levin's local office. Before she knew it, she was working on his 1990 campaign. She never again left politics.

"Coffee is not my addiction," White told Vogue for a 1996 profile the magazine wrote about her. "Campaigns are." (She declined to be interviewed for this article.)

White traveled all over the country working on statewide and presidential campaigns. She had stints in Colorado, Louisiana, Idaho, Missouri, California and South Dakota.

"We've had a lifestyle where we might live in three or four states in a year, working on campaigns," her husband, Robert G. Johnson, a political consultant and former chief of Maryland's Democratic Party, told The Sun last week.

"There are people who do it once and get it out of their system," he said. "And then there are the people who are truly sick and do it over and over again. We're in the latter category."

After Glendening's 1998 victory, White became a senior adviser to him and, under Fleischmann, deputy chief of staff to Townsend. Although she and Fleischmann had once been inseparable, their differing roles in the administration frayed their relationship.

Last year, White switched jobs to work as a deputy secretary at the Department of Natural Resources. She recently moved back to the governor's office, as his communications chief.

Fleischmann said he was very happy that White, who lives in Annapolis, would once again be moving into his Baltimore campaign office.

"Karen is great at making sure that all hands are on deck. That's what I need right now," he said. "Like she said to me the other day, `It's like a rabbit's foot, us working together.'"

Their friendship has survived, he added. "We have had an underlying respect and affection for one another. When I took a leave of absence from the lieutenant governor's office to work on the campaign, I said to her, `I don't think I'm going to want to do this without you,'" he said.

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