Townsend daughters are drawn to service

Campaign Culture

October 29, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

They are intelligent and personable. They're drawn to public service. Each could be described as down-to-earth and unpretentious. Together, they get along famously.

And, of course, they have politics in their genes.

They are the four daughters of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her husband, David Townsend. And despite the media spotlight cast on their 51-year-old mother, the Democratic nominee for Maryland governor, they are relatively unknown to the public.

"I'm trying to be protective of my children," Townsend says. "They're not in the limelight and I'm pretty comfortable with that."

If anyone knows what it's like to grow up in a political family, it would be Townsend, the eldest child of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Friends say she and her husband have long stuck to a policy of allowing their children to make a choice - get involved in politics or not, it's up to them.

"They don't want their daughters to feel pushed out front," says Alan H. Fleischmann, Townsend's longtime aide and godfather of her youngest child. "They have a concern for privacy. Once you start to publicly advertise your children, is there any going back?"

The Townsends' eldest two daughters, Meaghan, 24, and Maeve, 22, no longer live in Maryland. Meaghan moved to Los Angeles two years ago and works as volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit LA's BEST (Better Educated Students for Tomorrow), an after-school enrichment program for 18,500 city elementary school children.

Maeve joined the Peace Corps and for the past 14 months has been teaching English and AIDS awareness to teen-agers in a rural village in Mozambique. She lives in a 10-by-10-foot hut without electricity and running water and is far from the nearest telephone.

"It's a big world and I've been blessed with the opportunity to see it," Maeve wrote in a recent e-mail. "How could I not jump at the opportunity?"

Meaghan is serious, determined, smart and athletic, her sisters say. She played three varsity sports at Bryn Mawr and continued to compete in athletics at Harvard University. Her father describes her as "gorgeous." She describes herself as the most shy person in the family.

She telephones and exchanges e-mail with her sisters and parents at least several times a week.

"If my mother won the lottery, you know what she would do? She'd still run for governor," Meaghan says. "She enjoys what she does."

Maeve, a Boston College graduate, is the enthusiastic, charismatic, passionate sibling. Family members talk about her long, eloquent letters home - and her tendency to speak her mind at any moment. She's also performed as an actress onstage.

"She's outgoing and makes friends easily," her mother says.

The youngest daughters, Kate, 18, and Kerry, 10, have been the most deeply involved in the gubernatorial campaign. Kate is a sophomore at Brown University but took the fall semester off to work for the campaign full-time.

Kerry is a sixth-grader. Her mother declined to allow her to be interviewed for this article. But her sisters describe her as the most outgoing and most organized of the siblings - and the most comfortable with having a parent in the spotlight. She often stuffs envelopes and answers the phone at the campaign office, and does so enthusiastically.

"Who would win the prize as the most responsible member of the Townsend family? That would be Kerry," her mother says.

Kate, the only red-headed Townsend (a shade similar to that of great-grandfather Joseph Kennedy's, she's been told) is known for her art. Most recently, she drew cartoons for the Brown student newspaper. She is thoughtful, kind, philosophical and "likes to think about ideas," her father says.

She also claims to be the only one of the sisters with a steady boyfriend. His name is Justin. He's a senior at Brown, a business major from Queens.

Her parents say Kate has learned a lot about politics this year and has become an effective speaker for the campaign - chiefly by appearing before groups of college students around the state. Once, when she was speaking in College Park, she was booed and jeered by a hostile crowd, but finished her talk without missing a beat, her mother recalled proudly.

"I know people will bash my mother sometimes," Kate says. "But I know what a good person she is and how hard she works. It's a hard thing to deal with."

The Townsend sisters say their childhood was relatively normal, with much of it spent growing up in upper-class Ruxton. They attended a variety of schools, both public and private (Calvert, Park, St. Paul's School for Girls, Bryn Mawr, Riderwood Elementary and Towson High all have had at least one of the Townsends enrolled at one time or other), and were active in local youth sports.

They've also grown up well aware of the burdens and opportunities that come with the Kennedy name in America. They recall summer vacations in Hyannisport and have relatives who make the cover of People magazine on a regular basis - for better and for worse.

More than once, they've encountered star-struck college classmates. Or talked to total strangers who could recite intimate details of family scandals.

"I meet people who know more about my family than I do," Kate says.

Still, the sisters say they all enjoy politics. They're proud of their mother's political career and hope she wins.

On the day before the election, the family will be reunited for the first time since Maeve left for Africa. That has them nearly as excited as their mother's potential success.

"When you get us together, we all roll on the floor and laugh," says Meaghan. "We all have a taste for adventure."

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