Townsend pushing Kennedy ties more

On issues of gun control, labor, she is now often evoking her famous roots

Election 2002

October 17, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In the early stages of her run for governor, Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend seemed reluctant to remind voters of her family roots.

Sure, campaign trail introductions frequently included mention of the Kennedy tradition, yet the candidate rarely -- if ever -- talked about her father, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, or her two uncles, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

It's not that she was hiding anything, but the family's Massachusetts-based tradition of wealth and political power seemed to be played down as her Republican challenger sought to define himself as a man of Arbutus.

These days, that reluctance seems to have disappeared.

Whether she is talking about unions, gun control, drug treatment or Israel, the lieutenant governor is regularly including references to her family.

"If you add all the years that John Kennedy was in public life, and Robert Kennedy was in public life, and Ted Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, Joe Kennedy, Mark Shriver, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ... I think we'd have a century of Kennedys fighting for labor," Townsend told an enthusiastic crowd of steelworkers yesterday.

To Jewish voters, she reminded them during two weekend candidate forums at Montgomery County synagogues that her father was "killed by a Palestinian terrorist because of his views on Israel."

And the sniper shootings in the Washington region have prompted Townsend to repeatedly talk about her late father and the pain of losing family members to gun violence.

Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have said they are trying to avoid politicizing the shootings, though Townsend has emphasized the differences in their gun control records in recent speeches and a new Washington-area television advertisement.

"I've known the pain of losing a member of my family to gun violence," Townsend said. "The gun issue has come up, and when the congressman accuses me of being political, I say that it's not political, it's personal."

For Maryland Democrats, the new emphasis on Townsend's Kennedy family roots comes as a welcome relief.

"People were calling us to say that she needs to talk about her father, Bobby, more often, and these were Democrats who love her," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "They wanted more of that, and now they've got it. We don't get those calls anymore."

Ehrlich said yesterday that Townsend's more frequent references to her family legacy haven't gone unnoticed by the GOP campaign.

"Family is fair," said Ehrlich, who has talked repeatedly about his working-class parents who sacrificed to send him to top-notch private schools.

Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College, said both gubernatorial candidates can probably make inroads with voters by stressing their different family roots.

"She sees her heritage as an asset, and it's legitimate. She speaks of it with a great deal of emotion and conviction, and she's credible," Smith said. "Ehrlich is doing the same thing, talking about pulling himself from the bootstraps and that he's the American dream personified. He speaks with emotion and force on that life."

In an interview after speaking to the steelworkers yesterday, Townsend said she hasn't been actively trying to talk more about her father or other Kennedy relatives.

"It depends on the audience and what I'm talking about and really how I feel," Townsend said. "For instance, unions have been a strong part of my family tradition for a long time, so it seemed appropriate to bring that up."

But others in the Townsend campaign say they, too, have noticed that the lieutenant governor seems to have grown more comfortable incorporating Kennedy references into her speeches and interviews.

Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm says he believes that Townsend has begun talking about her father as she has established her own personality in the gubernatorial campaign.

"Her lack of talking about him in the past has been not unusual for political figures," Hamm said. "Political figures frequently in my experience tend to shy away from coattails, so to speak, because of a strong personal desire to be their own person."

Regardless of whether the family references are politically calculated or simply natural extensions of the issues, it appears likely to help Townsend motivate her core supporters -- something that could be important in a tight election.

In a poll of likely voters conducted for The Sun during the summer by Potomac Survey Research, about one in five said they are less likely to vote for Townsend because she is a member of the Kennedy family. About 6 percent of voters said they are more inclined to vote for her and about three-quarters said connection makes no difference.

"It sounds like she's using this as a private message to her base, and what we did see in the poll is that her core supporters were not as firm as Ehrlich's were," said Steven R. Raabe, Potomac's executive vice president. "She's evidently trying to fire up her troops, speaking to people who ordinarily would be with the Democratic nominee and reminding them of her connection to the long history of struggle on their behalf."

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