The Choice

Townsend: Thanks to attacks linking her to Glendening, the supposed heir apparent finds herself in a rugged race.

Election 2002

October 27, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

If Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wins next week's election, she would become Maryland's first female governor, and the first lieutenant governor to succeed his or her boss in modern state history. She'd also become the first Kennedy woman elected in her own right.

But that "if" looms larger now than ever before.

A half-year ago, a Townsend victory seemed practically inevitable. With near-universal name recognition, no significant primary opposition and millions in the bank, she was cruising to what some observers were calling a coronation.

For now, however, the crown remains in its case.

Since July, polls have shown Townsend locked in a surprisingly tight race with U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican from Timonium.

Her advantages neutralized, she is now fighting for every vote. She's struggling to distance herself from her increasingly unpopular political mentor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, while she attempts to lay out programs affordable to a state facing a $1.7 billion budget gap.

As she articulates her philosophy of government - one that functions best when it works with its citizens rather than for them - she has been repeatedly hammering at differences between herself and Ehrlich.

"This is a serious campaign with a serious fight over the future of our families," Townsend sternly told supporters at a Montgomery County campaign rally recently. "What kind of education our children are going to enjoy, what kind of health care our families are going to be able to get. This is an election about making sure that we are going to protect the rights of working men and women, and whether we are going to have an inclusive and diverse administration."

Townsend says inclusion and public service were impressed on her as a child, growing up in one of the nation's most storied political families.

The eldest daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Townsend says she never thought of seeking office on her own until the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s opened her mind to the possibility.

Shortly after moving to Maryland, she mounted an unsuccessful bid for Congress in the 1986 2nd District election, losing to Helen Delich Bentley. Later, she toiled in the state education department and as a Justice Department lawyer before Glendening selected her as his running mate.

When she launched her own run last spring, Townsend talked widely about how she would build on the eight-year record of the Glendening-Townsend administration.

Maryland's AAA bond rating and investments in higher education, public schools and the environment left the state positioned to enter what she called "Maryland's moment."

Townsend issued a 32-page "blueprint" that outlined her priorities on education, health care, economic development, traffic and other issues.

She pledged to build the Intercounty Connector, a much-studied highway in Montgomery County; to lower prescription drug prices for senior citizens; and to reduce class sizes in schools.

Shift in public focus

But those issues are only some of what has been on the minds of voters.

For the past month, attention in the populous Washington suburbs has been focused on the sniper shootings. No one knows how the killings will affect voters' decisions, although most observers agree they will have some impact on the race.

At the same time, concern about Maryland's worsening fiscal condition has swelled, and questions are mounting about whether Glendening has done enough to curtail spending. Polls show that likely voters are more confident about her opponent's ability to solve the budget mess.

In the past several weeks, the candidates have launched negative ad campaigns. The result: Both nominees' disapproval ratings are up, and growing numbers of likely voters are expressing dissatisfaction with both candidates.

The shootings, television ads and budget deficit have dampened excitement in the late stages of the race, experts say, making politics a tough sell.

"An enthusiastic vote and an unenthusiastic vote counts the same," said Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat and campaign consultant. "This race is going to be decided by turnout, and by where the less enthusiastic people land when they make their minds up."

Some of Townsend's ideas could be too subtle to generate excitement, critics say.

She sometimes weaves fine details of policy discussions into the larger themes of her campaigns, displaying a penchant for the inner workings of government developed during her years as a bureaucrat.

In some speeches, she mentions her role as an assistant attorney general overseeing sewage issues. Her platform includes a plan to allow poorly performing sewage plants to pay money to cleaner plants, creating a market-based system that in theory provides incentives for some plants to make improvements.

Critics find fault in those messages and others.

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