The Democrats' False Maryland Hope

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:39

    The Kennedy lovesongs are endless. Townsend's on Newsweek's short list of candidates likely to be the nation's first woman president, along with the likes of Hillary Clinton, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Christine Todd Whitman. Not bad company for someone who's never won an election on her own and lost the only one she ever tried.

    She's on virtually everyone's list of possible vice-presidential pairings with Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Townsend's a regular on the talking-head circuit, appearing especially on softballer Larry King's program. Eleanor Clift called her the ideal candidate to be stapled to Gore. So did Arianna Huffington. And she's stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bill Clinton at recent White House ceremonies.

    Next week, Townsend will cochair, in Baltimore, the annual meeting of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which will be attended by Clinton and Gore. DLC officials said they chose Baltimore for their annual meeting for the second consecutive year because of Townsend's popularity.

    "When I go around the country, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is one of the most sought-after Democratic leaders," DLC President Al From said at a news conference in Baltimore last week.

    And Townsend's veins flow with the right stuff. She's the oldest child of Robert Kennedy, the niece of President John F. and Sen. Edward M. and kissing kin to a battalion of Kennedy cousins in and out of public office. Around these parts, she's already picked up the mocking sobriquet "KKT."

    But wait just a minute. Townsend, like a lot of candidates, looks better from a distance than she does close up. What's more, Townsend has her eyes fastened on the governorship of Maryland?nothing more, nothing less.

    Vice-presidential candidate? Not this time around. Traditionally, runningmates are chosen for what they can deliver in terms of electoral votes. Pity poor little Maryland. It has only 10. Besides, the state is one of the most Democratic in the nation, and already belongs lock, stock and walkaround money to Gore.

    But Townsend?KKT, if you will?goes beyond just representing a state. She delivers the celebrity factor?which is why she was chosen as a candidate for lieutenant governor in the first place by her very unglamorous boss, Gov. Parris Glendening. He needed pizzazz and cash.

    When he chose Townsend as a runningmate in 1994, Glendening was sharply criticized by local Democratic apparatchiks. But in a twist, it was Townsend who saved the porkchop for Glendening in the 1998 reelection by summoning Kennedy family retainer Robert Shrum to sharpen campaign commercials and polish speeches.

    A choice of Townsend as second banana to Gore would provoke Bronx cheers, just as it did when Glendening chose her as his understudy. Gore's choosing a woman, and a Kennedy woman, would merely heighten suspicions that he's a candidate who'll do anything to win, including selecting a brand name over a ticketmate of substance. In that case, chalk Townsend up as another Geraldine Ferraro?there for no reason other than her gender?only without the Goodfellas connections.

    Townsend, as a candidate, is not quite ready for primetime. As lieutenant governor she has committed a number of memorable blunders. Local political observers believe that Townsend?to phrase it gently?lacks the gravitas required to elevate her to higher public office. What's more, a loss as vice-presidential candidate could damage her chances of winning the Maryland governorship in 2002.

    Townsend, though an energetic cheerleader, is only an adequate public speaker?and only as long as she sticks to the prepared script. She's not much of an improviser, nor good at quick-on-your-feet responses. The prevailing wisdom is that she'd be decapitated in the pressure-cooker context of a televised debate.

    She once departed from her text at a Statehouse rally in Annapolis and unintentionally insulted a group of developmentally disabled Marylanders. And legislators complain that when she completes prepared testimony before General Assembly committees she's unable to recall what she's read and is ill-equipped to respond to questions. Even talk-show callers mimic her lack of verbal facility.

    In Maryland, the lieutenant governor's duties are deliberately vague and comprise only those functions that are assigned by the governor. Townsend's primary responsibilities are in the areas of economic development and criminal justice, because of her legal and Justice Dept. background.

    Townsend botched and bungled so badly in the criminal justice hothouse that Maryland's Dept. of Juvenile Justice had to be dismantled and rebuilt. It was discovered that errant young men were being physically abused and brutally assaulted?broken bones and all?in Maryland's vaunted "boot camp" system for wayward youths. Townsend refused to accept those findings and bungled even further by inviting a reporter and a photographer to inspect the camps for themselves. The result was a yearlong investigation documenting the abuses and a prizewinning series in the Baltimore Sun. The two men in charge of Juvenile Services were Townsend's handpicked administrators. Her reaction: Firing the men and saying, "It's time to move on." The boot camps have since been deactivated.

    On another occasion, Townsend beat the police to the scene of a fatal truck accident, where she declaimed before television cameras that the driver would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The state police and prosecutors found no basis for charges. So the wonder is whether Townsend could survive the vetting required of a vice-presidential candidate.

    Further complicating Townsend's chances is that her boss, Glendening, somehow fancies himself a potential choice for vice president. (Go ahead and laugh. The reaction was the same hereabouts when Spiro T. Agnew's name first fluttered through the political wind tunnel.) Glendening was reportedly exercised over the attention being rained on Townsend. Surely, Glendening, as Maryland's Democratic Party leader, would have veto power over who in his state would get the call.

    Townsend has already begun to amass the millions she'll need to fertilize a run for governor, at fundraisers in Maryland and at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis. Under federal election laws, much of the boodle is beyond the reach of a candidate for vice president.

    But perhaps the most compelling reason why Townsend will not be on Gore's A-list of prospective ticketmates is simply this: she enjoys the attention, but doesn't want the job.

    Frank A. DeFilippo has seen Maryland politics from the inside and outside as a reporter and columnist, and as press secretary to Gov. Marvin Mandel.