Larson says No. 2 role suits him fine

Townsend's running mate an old hand at touring

Admiral meets the party faithful

Election 2002

August 25, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- He's a retired four-star admiral who has commanded the Pacific Fleet and done two tours of duty overseeing the U.S. Naval Academy.

On a recent weekday, he has an assignment that he treats as no less important: Use a hedge clipper to cut the ribbon on Talbot County's new Democratic Party headquarters. Later, he'll repeat the task in Salisbury.

The man known in Maryland political circles as "The Admiral" hasn't taken long to embrace his new role as Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's running mate.

"I wouldn't be No. 2 to any person unless I had total confidence in their leadership capabilities," retired Adm. Charles R. Larson tells the two-dozen Democratic Party officials who have come out for the opening. "I have found out I had a remarkable fit with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."

Two months after he switched his party affiliation and was plucked from retirement to be Townsend's surprise pick as a running mate, Larson has settled into the routines that come with being a candidate.

He is visiting county fairs and inner-city YMCAs, taking tours with elected Democratic officials and attending pep rallies with the Democratic Party faithful -- often driving himself to events in a Buick Regal rented by the campaign.

The back-to-back appearances in his campaign schedule aren't much of a change from the public tours Larson took when he was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. "I'd do five or six events in a day, and then have an evening social event," Larson says. "The difference is that back then, I sometimes had to fly 6,000 miles to get to the first event. Everything in Maryland is a lot closer."

Here on the conservative Eastern Shore, Larson seems perfectly at home chatting with Democrats charged to get out the vote on Election Day.

Although Larson's selection upset some African-American officials in Baltimore and Prince George's County who thought Townsend should have picked a black candidate for lieutenant governor, Eastern Shore Democrats are pleased to be campaigning with a retired military man. They scramble to stand by his side in publicity photos and talk admiringly of his work improving Maryland's higher education system.

"He makes it a more rounded and more experienced ticket," says Charles T. Dean III, a member of Caroline County's Democratic Central Committee. "Admiral Larson is someone who will really help on the Shore."

Enez Stafford Grubb, an African-American who oversees the Cambridge campus of Sojourner-Douglass College and is running for Dorchester County Council, concedes that she would have preferred to see a black running mate picked by Townsend -- or at least one who hadn't switched his party registration just weeks before being selected.

"But that's not significant enough to leave the Democratic Party," Grubb says. "And the more I hear what [Larson] has to say, the more I like him."

Larson says the criticism doesn't bother him, because those doing the criticizing have told him it isn't personal. "They have told me, `We respect you. We accept you. We admire you,'" he says. "What this has more to do with is the process. I've decided I'm never taking this personally."

Still, Larson is making an effort to reach out to black voters and other traditional Democratic stalwarts.

A few weeks ago, moments before speaking to the Maryland State Teachers Association -- one of the groups most loyal to Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- Larson ducks into a bathroom to pull on one of the union's bright-red T-shirts, then makes an enthusiastic pitch for how much he'll support collective bargaining.

During a series of campaign stops this week on the Eastern Shore, Larson skillfully tailors his stump speech for each audience -- telling farmers about working summers as a teen-ager on his uncles' Nebraska farms, reminding black residents who live in a subsidized-housing project in Denton about the military's legacy of promoting people based on skills and talents.

Military references often seem to crop up in Larson's conversations and speeches, a reflection of his four-decade naval career. His ramrod-straight posture and his giant Naval Academy ring also serve as reminders.

He always introduces himself as "Chuck Larson" -- though most everyone addresses him as "Admiral" or "Sir." When campaign aides talk about Larson, they always use his military title, too. By contrast, they frequently refer to the lieutenant governor as "Kathleen."

Political observers say Larson's selection was to reassure moderate Democrats concerned that Townsend, and her Kennedy family legacy, might be too liberal. By contrast, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, is an African-American who observers say helps the GOP reach out to black voters while helping protect the ticket from race-based attacks.

Most voters make their selection based on the person at the top of the ticket -- not the running mate -- and recent polls show neither candidate for lieutenant governor has particularly high name recognition.

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