For Townsend, mixed marks on crime fight

Record: The lieutenant governor draws praise for her effort, varied grades for her accomplishments.

Election 2002

October 15, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend calls herself the most active and accomplished lieutenant governor in Maryland history.

She spent the past eight years crafting a reputation as a champion of safer neighborhoods, overseeing a portfolio of criminal justice programs ceded to her by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

For her effort, she almost universally wins high marks from observers, who find her a committed and passionate advocate for crime-fighting causes. Her grades for execution, however, are more varied - often colored by political allegiances.

"We have never had anyone champion public safety the way that the lieutenant governor has. I have to give her credit where credit is due," said Sheldon Greenberg, director of the division of public safety leadership at the Johns Hopkins University School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.

"Public safety is a culture in need of change, and changing culture is something that is not going to happen in one or two terms," Greenberg said. "She's at least begun to break down some barriers."

Under Townsend, Maryland launched several programs that have drawn national attention, including HotSpot, which concentrates police and other resources in communities that need help. She also shepherded Break the Cycle, a program of frequent drug testing and discipline for probationers, and she committed greater resources to reducing domestic violence.

The programs share common threads: Townsend and her staff picked ideas that seemed to work in other places and applied them at a state level. They require cooperation between various groups - such as police and parole officers or schools and juvenile probation workers - that hadn't worked together before.

But problems in some of the programs have raised questions about her leadership and management abilities.

The juvenile boot camps she oversaw were shuttered after The Sun exposed regular beatings of inmates by guards. Maryland recently paid $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of young offenders.

The Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, a Townsend-managed agency that is a clearinghouse for her ideas, is the target of a grand jury investigation into whether federal grants were used for political ends.

HotSpot has been belittled by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and city Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris as a poor use of resources. And Break the Cycle has never fully met its lofty goals.

"Based on the serious problems with the boot-camp program and the alleged problems with grants to different organizations, one would have grave concerns over whether the lieutenant governor is capable," said Christopher J. McCabe, a former Republican state senator from Howard County who handles intergovernmental affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "The record, at least on juvenile issues, appears fairly poor. That was the area she's had direct responsibility for."

Job performance

For voters, Townsend's performance during her tenure in Annapolis offers the best evidence on how she would lead the state. While her Republican opponent for governor, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has a 16-year voting history as a state delegate and congressman, Townsend has held no elective office other than lieutenant governor - a position devoid of formal authority under the state constitution.

Her record reveals a willingness to address issues considered the most difficult for government to tackle. Juvenile crime, for example, is linked to many other woes - from drug use and teen pregnancy to poorly performing schools and single-parent families.

"I took this on, first because I've been a victim of crime myself. I know how awful it is," Townsend said, referring to her father, Robert F. Kennedy, who was killed when she was 16. "Two, I felt that crime is really dividing our communities. ... That to me was totally unacceptable. I did this knowing it was a very tough issue without a lot of easy solutions."

"Regardless of success or failure, she needs to be given credit for taking on something that's tough and unsolvable," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County.

Townsend's record also shows that she is intrigued by new concepts developed by policy wonks and will often stick with them in the face of opposition or less-than-impressive results. Her staff members say she is more pragmatist than ideologue.

"She is really looking for results and the programs that produce," said Michael Sarbanes, a top Townsend policy adviser. "If it doesn't work, and it's not accomplishing the goal, then look for something else. She tries to get people involved - citizens, advocates. ... It's harder; it adds to the amount of work."

But while Townsend made much of her office, she was hampered by the institutional inability of Maryland's lieutenant governor to direct spending or hire and fire staff.

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