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Bucking conventions, breaking rules

Sun Staff

First of two articles.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend arrived in Annapolis in 1984 as a young lawyer working for the House Appropriations Committee, and promptly broke the rules.

Townsend was trying to persuade the state to yank its investments from corporations operating in South Africa. She had traveled to Johannesburg a few months before taking the job, forming strong views she couldn't keep to herself.

"The appropriations committee members were discussing it, and there was a legislator who I thought said something inappropriate and dumb," Townsend recalled recently. "I stood up and said, 'You're wrong.' And I argued with him."

It was a violation of a cardinal principle of legislatures everywhere. Staffers don't correct elected officials. Not in front of colleagues.

"He was so angry. I was called into his office," she said. "And I remember that for a week, two weeks, I was so mortified. How could I have not understood my place?"

Townsend's role in life, clearly, was not to be a voiceless consultant to a legislative committee. She spent only a year on the job. But it was the beginning of a varied public service career that she hopes will lead her to a much higher place: governor of her adopted state.

Townsend has spent the better part of two decades molding her passion into a string of achievements, from launching the first statewide student service initiative to creating an innovative crime-fighting program that concentrates resources in the neediest neighborhoods.

As an assistant state attorney general, a candidate for congress, an education department employee and a lieutenant governor, Townsend has frequently bucked conventions and forged her own rules.

She's better now at suppressing the enthusiasm that led to that confrontation in a House of Delegates meeting room. But those who know her say she has not abandoned the idealism that she blends with erudite philosophy, Judeo-Christian spirituality, a dose of flinty pragmatism and a compassionate personal touch that has earned her many loyal supporters.

"She has real core values and a moral compass," says her husband, David Townsend. "And that has expressed itself more and more freely as she has taken on more and more leadership roles."

A woman who conquered a fear of heights to climb Mount Rainier as a 50th birthday commemoration, Townsend, 51, seeks to reach another summit. As a candidate for governor against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., she is fighting to distinguish herself from unpopular Gov. Parris N. Glendening, to overcome the perception that Democrats have controlled Annapolis too long.

The latest poll for The Sun showed her at a disadvantage, trailing Ehrlich 44-48 percent.

The eldest of 11 children of Ethel and Robert Kennedy, Townsend learned public service at the dinner table, where children were obliged to participate in discussions of current events.

When her uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, her father penned a note to his 12-year-old daughter that read: "As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a particular responsibility. ... Be kind to others, and work for your country."

Kathleen attended schools in Montgomery County and Putney, Vt., and graduated from Harvard University, where she met her husband, a Ph.D. candidate and one of her teachers.

After the wedding, David and Kathleen Townsend moved to New Mexico, where David taught at the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College. Townsend enrolled at the University of New Mexico Law School and received her degree in 1978.

Then it was David's turn: The family moved east so he could attend Yale Law School. Townsend clerked for U.S. District Judge A. David Mazzone, who would later oversee a landmark case resulting in the cleanup of Boston Harbor.

'Moral teachings'

Mazzone remembers a memorandum she wrote on an education case. "It was strongly on the side of moral teachings," he said. "She wanted to quote Aristotle, on saying 'a teacher's work is never done.' ... And I thought, it doesn't sound like Mazzone, it sounds like Kathleen.

"We had a discussion about it, and I thought about it, and she was right. I put it in the footnote. I thought it was something that a reader of my opinion needed to know. She didn't quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, like law clerks are supposed to."

After practicing law in New Haven for a few years, Townsend managed the 1982 re-election campaign of her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Two years later, the family relocated to the Ruxton neighborhood of Baltimore County, to be closer to David Townsend's family.

Settling in to a 4,000-square-foot Victorian home, Townsend landed the position with the House Appropriations Committee. The lawmaker whom Townsend said she crossed tells a different version of the story. Paul Muldowney of Hagerstown, at the time the Democratic chairman of the pensions subcommittee, said Townsend did not dress him down, but provided inaccurate information during testimony.

"She told a falsehood and I found out about it," he said, adding that he "discreetly" called Townsend into his office to tell her "she was not welcome to testify before my committee ever again." Muldowney calls himself a "proud Ehrlich supporter."

Townsend was then hired as an assistant state attorney general, focusing on sewage, sludge and sanitary landfills. In 1986, the Townsend family grew distressed that one Democratic challenger after another refused to run against Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in the 2nd District. Without much forethought, Townsend jumped into a race that garnered national attention for its novelty: a Kennedy woman seeking office.

"I'll take credit for planting the seed," David Townsend said. "This was our congressperson, and she was not representing the values that Kathleen really lived. I said, 'Kathleen, why don't you do it?'"

Townsend made some changes to accommodate a political career. "She learned to put on makeup for the first time," David Townsend said. But she lost decisively, making history as the first Kennedy ever to lose a general election.

Soon after, Maryland state schools superintendent David Hornbeck wrote an opinion piece about the value of students performing service in their communities.

He received a note from Townsend, saying she believed in the same things. How could she help?

"I said the way she could help was come work in the department," Hornbeck said. "I didn't have any money to pay her, but I would find a grant somewhere. ... She worked for almost a year for free."

Townsend headed the Student Service Alliance, crafting a proposal to make community service a high school graduation requirement. The idea was disputed, but she doggedly built support.

"I learned the importance of building a whole coalition," she said. "It was important to figure out how to implement an idea at the grass-roots level."

Townsend spent six years in the job, her longest tenure anywhere prior to becoming lieutenant governor. In 1993, President Clinton appointed her as a deputy assistant attorney general, working on community-based anti-crime initiatives.

Conventional wisdom holds that when Parris N. Glendening was looking for a running mate, he plucked Townsend from the obscurity of the Justice Department, hoping to burnish his appeal with Kennedy mystique.

Townsend tells a different version. The methodical Glendening called her 18 months before the election, trying to line up support. She was noncommittal. Later, when she realized Glendening was the front-runner who needed geographical and gender balance on his ticket, she said she lobbied for the appointment. "I thought it would be a good job," she said. "I thought I could do more as lieutenant governor, and I was right."

By most accounts, she has made much of a position that has often been a springboard to retirement, concentrating on crime-fighting, drug treatment and economic development. Critics say she has used the office as a platform for a gubernatorial run, distributing grants to curry political favor.

Loyal staff

Her office is packed with an intensely loyal staff.

"She's made it her life's mission not to be phony," said Alan Fleischmann, Townsend's chief of staff. "She had cameras surrounding her at a young age, and people always wanted the quick sound bite, some superficial thought. But Kathleen has fought against that, intellectually, physically personally."

Fleischmann and other Townsend friends tell of acts of compassion the public never sees.

On a fall day in 1997, Townsend drove to an Allegany County domestic violence meeting. Midway through the session, a young mother from West Virginia rose to the microphone. She had driven 90 minutes. She needed out of an abusive relationship.

Townsend's staff had trouble finding help on the spot, but didn't want her to return home. So Townsend pulled out her credit card and told aides to make sure the victim stayed in a hotel overnight and got help the next day. Then the lieutenant governor issued a final order: This stays among us.

"She was so clear that she didn't want anybody to know," said Debbie Bright, a state domestic violence advocate assisting Townsend. "And that was so touching to me."

If Townsend loses, it won't be for lack of effort. She puts in 17-hour days, rising before dawn for radio interviews, persevering through a series of stories about how she's slid in the polls, how she's squandered an embarrassment of advantages in a heavily Democratic state.

But the campaign has convinced her, she said, that she is the better person for the job.

Tomorrow: A profile of the Republican candidate for governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

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