An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about Democratic candidates courting sportsmen quoted Rich Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association, at a rally for gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Novotny and MSSA president Bruno Vasta were at the Cecil County event as individuals, not in their official capacity. The association does not endorse candidates for governor, as was explained in another article this week.
When Kathleen Kennedy Townsend received the endorsement of leading sportsmen this week, she became one of a growing number of Democrats to actively court this group of voters who traditionally back Republicans.
Standing along the banks of the Northeast River in Cecil County, Townsend beamed as, one by one, the leaders of hunting and recreational fishing organizations sang her praises. Many of them held copies of a letter she signed that promised more hunting opportunities and youth programs.
"We're much better off with Kathleen in there," said Rich Novotny, executive director of the 6,500-member Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association. "She's committed to what we stand for and what we believe."
In her speech, Townsend vowed that "Maryland's proud traditions of hunting and fishing will be embraced by my administration."
"When was the last time that sportsmen of Maryland heard such encouraging words?" asked Tim Lambert, immediate past president of the 15,000-member Maryland Sportsmen's Association.
Political observers say Townsend's script sounds similar to one used last year by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, who reached out to conservative, so-called "NASCAR Democrats."
Warner, a millionaire businessman from suburban Northern Virginia, handed out hunter-orange "Sportsmen for Warner" bumper stickers and persuaded the powerful National Rifle Association to stay on the sidelines and not endorse his opponent. He picked up 51 percent of the rural vote.
This year, candidates from Sen. Jean Carnahan in Missouri to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire are dusting off their camouflage. Shaheen, who is campaigning for the U.S. Senate, has her own sportsmen's group. Carnahan, running to retain her seat, is photographed shooting clay pigeons and talking about her son bagging Thanksgiving dinner.
The courting of the outdoors vote has gotten so heated that Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested that he and his female Democratic opponent, Jimmie Lee Fisher, "both dress in `camo,' both go to the woods and on the water and have it out, and let's just see who is the champion of the sportsmen of Arkansas."
Mark Rozell, a politics professor at Catholic University, said there has been "a sea change" in how Democrats present themselves on hunting. They concluded they were needlessly alienating sportsmen by appearing to oppose all gun ownership.
"Democrats were framing the issue too starkly. They have realized that some of that hot-button rhetoric isn't working, so they're trying to occupy the reasonable middle," he said.
This month, the Maryland Sportsmen's Association gave Townsend an A-minus based on her response to a questionnaire and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican candidate, a B. In a state that issued 121,800 resident hunting licenses last year, the grading carries some weight.
The outcome drew an angry response from the Ehrlich campaign, which accused Townsend of lying and telling the sportsmen what they wanted to hear.
Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick noted that Gov. Parris N. Glendening dismissed three Department of Natural Resources secretaries, forced out other administrators popular with hunters and anglers, and "is the most defiantly anti-hunting administration in the history of Maryland. This may go down as the greatest hoax in the 2002 political campaign."
Townsend shrugged off the criticism: "I put my commitment in writing. Common-sense gun laws don't mean taking actions that deprive law-abiding citizens of their firearms."
Robert Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes Townsend has "scored a coup."
"She seems to be getting sportsmen while also hitting Ehrlich for not being tough enough on guns. That's kind of a Warner-plus," he said.
But unlike Warner, who wooed the NRA, Townsend remains vocal in her support of gun control and received an F from that group. (Ehrlich got a B, but no endorsement.) That means she must perform the delicate surgery of separating firearms used by hunters from weapons used by criminals.
"In many cases, Democrats have been painted with the broad brush of being anti-sportsman because of their stand on gun control. But there's a difference between illegal handguns used to commit crime and the shotgun I use for duck hunting," said Michael Doebley of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which endorsed Townsend on Monday.