Townsend never shook off lightweight label

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend concedes defeat to Robert Ehrlich in the Maryland gubernatorial election in a speech at the Wyndham Hotel in Baltimore.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend concedes defeat to Robert Ehrlich in the Maryland gubernatorial election in a speech at the Wyndham Hotel in Baltimore. (Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby)
This Kennedy won't be the Next Kennedy after all.

Maryland voters derailed the political career of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend yesterday, rebuffing her bid to become the first member of an iconic family elected to an executive position since her uncle, John F. Kennedy, was chosen as president 42 years ago.

The defeat thwarts, at least for the short term, what some pundits saw as a blossoming career with national potential.

Townsend lost the race for governor, a first for a Democrat in Maryland since 1966, despite an abundance of advantages that appeared insurmountable a year ago.

Maryland's voter registration rolls favor Democrats by a margin of nearly 2-1. As a lieutenant governor for eight years, she enjoyed many of the perks of incumbency without, it seemed, the accompanying responsibility.

Considered the most active lieutenant governor in state history, she could claim credit for the anti-crime, drug-treatment and economic-development programs that she helped launch, while avoiding the full blame for those that didn't work. Lieutenant governors, after all, don't make budgets, and can't hire and fire people.

But the campaign of "Clean Kathleen," the woman devoted to public service who once considered becoming a nun, never captured the minds and hearts of a majority of Maryland voters.

"It was really incumbent on her over the last four years, and especially in the last nine months, to show Marylanders why she deserved to be governor, and she could never do that," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Warning signs were always apparent. Townsend toiled to overcome the perception that she was a political lightweight who couldn't string paragraphs into a coherent speech, who froze when a television camera focused on her or when a reporter asked an unexpected question.

As she became more polished through hard work, critics continued a drumbeat about her capabilities. Annapolis insiders had urged Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan to consider accepting the No. 2 spot on the ticket so that there would be at least one top-flight manager on the second floor of the State House.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was talking about a "vacuum of leadership" in the state Democratic Party as recently as March. When he gave his speech announcing that he would not enter the primary, he never mentioned Townsend's name, declining at the time to endorse her.

"That's the sort of albatross that she could not shake, that she's not capable of leadership, which defies logic," said Thomas F. Schaller, a UMBC political science professor. "Had it been a man, the whole issue of fitness to lead would have never come up. There's some serious gender bias."

The old boy network never fully embraced Townsend.

Bakery and hotel magnate John Paterakis, an influential Baltimore business leader, was an open supporter of Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as were key business leaders in the Washington region. Final fund-raising reports showed that the GOP had collected more money than the Democrats, as business-oriented bettors hedged on the outcome.

Until its final weeks, Townsend's campaign never hit its stride. She was unable to shake criticism of her selection of a former Republican as a running mate. Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson's impressive credentials never fully convinced leading African-Americans about why one of their own was passed over.

By July, polls found that her double-digit lead over Ehrlich had evaporated. There were calls that Alan H. Fleischmann, her loyal and powerful chief of staff, should be removed as head of the campaign.

But Townsend stayed loyal, and Fleischmann kept his job, as the campaign added more workers to make up for his shortcomings. No one was ever fired.

In August, newspaper headlines shouted out news of a federal investigation into the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which she oversees, further eroding perceptions about her record and ability. She denounced the investigation as "political garbage" dished out by a Republican-appointed U.S. attorney in bed with her opponent, but the news sucked the wind out of her race.

She later told leading state Democrats that she made a mistake by staying quiet during the summer and not going on the offensive.

A wake-up call came in the September primary, when one in five Democrat voters cast their ballots for Robert Raymond Fustero, a grocery clerk from Silver Spring who picked a former homeless person as a running mate.

Townsend seemed to gain traction after an energetic debate performance at Morgan State University, where she silenced some critics when she more than held her own against Ehrlich. But soon afterward, a sniper's bullets drew attention away from politics. The region was gripped by terror for three weeks during critical campaigning days. Voters had little desire to ponder whom they would chose for governor.

When their attention returned, it was too late. Momentum was on the side of Ehrlich, who linked Townsend to her unpopular mentor, outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Some observers thought Annapolis would be a way station for Townsend on a path that could lead to the White House. Fleischmann, the chief of staff, came off Capitol Hill and is versed in national and international affairs, twice turning down the opportunity to work with Vice President Al Gore.

Larson, her running mate, was perhaps better suited to serve as national security adviser (a post he says he would have been in line for if his Naval Academy buddy, John McCain, had been elected president), than in the toothless position of Maryland lieutenant governor.

The Kennedy name apparently did as much damage as good. In the campaign's waning days, the eldest daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy embraced her heritage more strongly than ever. Her mother traveled with her, and a direct-mail piece from state Democrats featured her father's profile.

Voters delivered the message yesterday that Maryland is not Massachusetts, that Arbutus trumps Hyannisport.

"OK, she's a Kennedy. That's great," Bill Pickard, 38, said as he left his Ellicott City polling place yesterday. "But what does that mean? I don't think it gives you a seat in government because you have the family name."

"I want someone who cares about the state, not someone who might be waiting for a better job to come along," said Art Jensen, 58, a certified public accountant from Howard County.

Maryland voters have never elected Townsend to any office on her own. She lost her 1986 race for Congress in Baltimore County. Glendening was voted into office twice, but in Maryland the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket. Now, she has been defeated again, with the painful distinction of being the only Kennedy ever to lose a general election.

Not once, but twice.