In this roomful of savvy politicians, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- wearing thick glasses, no makeup and a broad grin -- looks more like a student of government than the guest speaker.
She's among the youngest at this networking breakfast for Maryland women legislators. She's never been elected to office on her own. And her informal talk -- You can make a difference . . . Get involved -- has more spirit than substance.
Rather than speaking, though, she's here to get a crash course in local politics. And Mrs. Townsend -- the eldest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- has much to learn.
On Wednesday, she becomes Maryland's first female lieutenant governor and the first female Kennedy to take elective office -- albeit one with limited power and visibility. Her experience as Parris N. Glendening's running mate already has been a nail-biter: The gubernatorial election, which was the closest in 60 years, has been challenged in court by Republican rival Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
Since entering the campaign, Mrs. Townsend, 43, has weathered criticism that she isn't right for -- or up to -- the job. Political commentators called the selection of Mrs. Townsend, who epitomizes liberalism as the country grows more conservative, one of the governor-elect's first, and most serious, missteps.
Her low profile during the campaign and transition fueled speculation that she received the nod because a Kennedy would bring fame and money to the ticket. When she was not "officially" named to the transition team, some politicians viewed it as a snub and wondered: Would her biggest challenge be avoiding obscurity during the next four years?
"I'm not interested in keeping my face known," says Mrs. Townsend, who prior to the campaign was best known for helping to make community service a high school graduation requirement in Maryland. "I think the big challenge is to do a great job on the issues that Parris has laid out for me -- public safety, job development and schools. I couldn't care less if you hear about my name if we can accomplish those."
Mr. Glendening says he selected her from a list of dozens because she best complemented him. She brought a female perspective, a Baltimore County address and experience in criminal justice and education.
A 'deciding factor'
"Her enthusiasm and excitement for the job became a deciding factor," he says. "She really wanted to be lieutenant governor not because it was a steppingstone to something else but because of her interest in working with me."
She meets much in her life with a vigor that seems like armor as much as her natural demeanor. But friends and associates say this energy is genuine -- and helps motivate her.
Her positive attitude, combined with her thick, brown hair and trim build, make her seem younger than her age. It's only in profile -- and in the faint lines etched around her eyes and mouth -- that she has started to resemble her mother, Ethel.
"Kathleen is terribly bright, energetic and asks the right questions," says Rich Hollander, president of Millbrook Communications, a local TV production firm, who is also a Townsend family friend and informal adviser to Mr. Glendening.
"She's really engaging," he says. "She's the kind of person who if you're having a dinner party, and you're afraid it's going to be dull, you say 'Let's invite Kathleen and [her husband] David.' "
This, after all, is a woman who grew up in the company of presidents and senators, who spent her first date with her husband rafting down the Mississippi River for weeks, and who gave birth to her four daughters at home.
Yet detractors privately say she can be arrogant, highhanded and unfocused. They decline to speak publicly, though, for fear of offending her.
When asked what the campaign taught her about herself, she unhesitatingly replies: "I think I've already learned everything about myself. . . . I haven't changed in 25 years. I was happy with me then and I'm happy with me now. It doesn't show much growth potential, does it?"
But during lunch shortly after the election, the outgoing lieutenant governor, Melvin A. Steinberg, assured her that the job would teach her plenty.
"Surround herself with some experience -- that was my advice to her," recalls Mr. Steinberg, who ran for governor and lost badly to Mr. Glendening in the Democratic primary.
"Her assets are that she increased fund-raising . . . and she's a woman. That showed a reaching out -- an inclusion. Her weakness? Inexperience," says Mr. Steinberg, who had years of experience in the General Assembly before becoming lieutenant governor. "She's not familiar with some issues. During one of the debates, she represented Glendening at a forum -- a health symposium. She gave a personal anecdote about her grandmother that didn't address the issue and left quickly after that.
"She hasn't dealt with the state budget or capital construction of jails in Maryland. She wasn't involved in the issue of Medicare. She's not familiar with the Civiletti Commission and the APEX legislation. . . . These are complicated issues."
A banner year
If it helps, she can turn to her family for advice. This election was a banner year for Kennedys, with five claiming victory. Her brother, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, ran unopposed in Boston. Her uncle -- Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- won the toughest re-election of his career. Her cousin, Patrick, the senator's son, won his race for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District. And closer to home, cousin Mark Shriver, the son of former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Although she was rooting for her family, she didn't think much about them on election night -- or the fate of the Democratic Party, which lost control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
"I had plenty of anxiety without worrying about my relatives," she says. "This is a terrible thing to say, but I remember about three days after the election we still didn't know the outcome and someone said, 'Isn't it terrible what happened in the rest of the country?' And I said, 'What country?' "
Her duties are still not completely defined, but Mr. Glendening says she will coordinate programs and activities involving law enforcement, juvenile justice and safe communities -- often acting as a liaison between departments with related missions.
"My sense about how to fight crime is that clearly we need more police officers," she says. "But really the way to create order and peace in our communities is to have citizens say, 'This is what we want,' and to feel that it's up to them to set community standards. My vision is to figure out ways that people can take back some control of their lives and be able to participate."
For her, participation has been a political and personal theme.
"My whole life was that you get involved," she says. "That was the biggest shaper. Then there was the importance of history, reading and sports."
The eldest of 11, Kathleen Kennedy was born on the fourth of July, 1951. She grew up at Hickory Hill, the Robert F. Kennedy estate in McLean, Va., and her virtuous life reportedly earned her the nickname "the nun" from some siblings.
Her sister, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, says Mrs. Townsend spent her youth "leading the [school] newspaper, asking questions about what was happening in the life of our country, engaging herself in the issues of the time."
It's a mistake, though, to pigeonhole her sister, she says. "She defies labels. There's a tendency to say, 'She's a Kennedy, therefore, this is what she is.'. . . But she's constantly thinking, challenging herself and everyone around her," says Mrs. Kennedy Cuomo, 35, who is married to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's son, Andrew, and runs the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and Center for Human Rights in Washington.
The media, along with a steady stream of tell-all books, have chronicled the tragedies in her family life -- including her father's assassination in 1968, her brother David's death from a drug overdose in 1984 and the scandals of other relatives.
Most recently, Jerry Oppenheimer's work, "The Other Mrs. Kennedy," painted an unflattering view of her mother and her family's home life.
Following an example
She's coped with the blending of her private and public life by recalling the example set by her own father.
"He had terrible tragedies in his life," she says. "He kept going and got involved. He didn't give up."
After graduating from Harvard and getting her law degree from the University of New Mexico, she worked in environmental law before directing the successful, though weakly opposed, 1982 re-election campaign of Sen. Kennedy.
In 1984, she and her husband moved to his native Maryland. Mr. Townsend, who grew up in Timonium and now teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, is occasionally teased by friends about belonging to the Dennis Thatcher society, a mythical organization for husbands of political women.
"It's good for the children to see their mother living up to her potential," says Mr. Townsend, 47. "There are times when they wish she might be around to bake a cake. But there are other times that outweigh that in how proud they are of her."
The spouse of a politician has to be willing to do everything, including cooking, laundry and driving the car pool, he says. In his case, that even included delivering their second daughter, Maeve, now 15, when the midwife didn't arrive in time for the at-home birth.
The couple met at Harvard. Their first "date," which Mrs. Townsend suggested, was a raft trip on the Mississippi River with three other people. It lasted 20 days and 500 miles.
"We all got to know each other well," he recalls. "She's an extremely positive person who has a wonderful sense of life as an adventure. . . . She's not afraid of any challenge."
A year later, he took her to another body of water -- the Loch Raven Reservoir -- where he proposed in a canoe. They married in 1973.
In many ways, their private lives parallel many upper-middle class families. Toys dot the front lawn of their sprawling Victorian home in Ruxton. The family -- or at least some members -- try to watch Meaghan, 17, play on Bryn Mawr's varsity basketball, tennis and lacrosse teams. The couple's younger daughters -- Maeve, Kate, 11, and Kerry, 3 -- attend St. Paul's, Park and Montessori, respectively, because they all "learn differently," their mother says.
Mrs. Townsend realizes that her daughters now face a similar life to the one she had as a youngster.
"But there's a lot of difference between being a lieutenant governor and senator or attorney general," she says. "And it's also a different time. It was very exciting watching my father come home, having tried to integrate the University of Alabama. . . . What I've seen is that this has given my children a heightened interest [in politics] and I'm glad about that."
She's unconcerned about the public spotlight being turned on them, she says.
"I'm a big believer in high expectations. People say, 'Oh, you must have lived under such pressure.'. . . Through most of the history of the human race, people have been in what was called the public spotlight because they lived in small communities and everyone knew their business. It's only in the modern times that people have had private lives," she says.
For Mrs. Townsend, her own attempt to capture Maryland's political spotlight took place in 1986 when she opposed Maryland Rep. Helen Delich Bentley for the 2nd District congressional seat. Early on, she wanted to be known as Kathleen Townsend and routinely declined to answer questions about life as a Kennedy. Halfway through the campaign, that changed. She began using her middle name and talking about the legacy of her father.
In the end, she spent more than a million dollars and was defeated by the Republican incumbent -- an experience that some believe humbled and matured her.
"That campaign was important in her growth as a political person," says Mr. Hollander, who has known Mrs. Townsend for nearly 10 years. "She needed that experience to campaign with confidence and to get up in front of groups and speak extemporaneously. . . . To watch her, she's much more confident now. Her one-on-one, shopping-center, hand-shaking stuff is as good as I've ever seen."
For the next six years, she worked in the state Department of Education, becoming immersed in student service. She became a national leader in the field and was instrumental in Maryland becoming the first state to have a community service requirement for high school graduation.
"Kathleen brings an enormous enthusiasm to service," says Kathy Levin, founder of Magic Me, an international program linking preteens with isolated elderly. "Five years ago, it wasn't remotely on the agenda. . . . She came along as a kind of celebrity and that attracted interest. There were those of us who had been developing innovative programs. We had that vision, but it took a lot of people to change things. She really opened doors."
In 1992, she left education when Attorney General Janet Reno hired her as a deputy assistant in the Justice Department. She helped oversee several programs, including grants for community policing. She was working on the implementation of the crime bill before signing on with Mr. Glendening.
The modern-day job of lieutenant governor dates back only to 1970. After Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew resigned to become vice president, the General Assembly decided that having a lieutenant was wiser than having legislators elect a new governor.
Since then, there has been debate about whether the post is necessary at all.
Finding her place
xTC "There needs to be somebody who will be there if the governor isn't," she says. "The question is, in the meantime, what does the lieutenant governor do? . . . Parris wanted somebody who could get along, who could bring some skills, and who would help out in the campaign."
Although political commentators noted her low profile during the campaign, Mrs. Townsend was seen at many community rallies, neighborhood gatherings and small fund-raisers -- events that don't garner headlines but are an important part of a campaign.
She also downplays her omission from the transition team. When the group was announced shortly after the election, the governor-elect and his wife, Frances Hughes Glendening, co-chair of the transition, stood in front of the executive committee members, while Mrs. Townsend sat on a couch off to the side. At that time, Mr. Glendening put off announcing what her immediate role would be.
She calls it "ridiculous" that people perceived that as being cast aside.
"I go to meetings," she says. "I'm part of it. . . . I'm the lieutenant governor-elect. It goes without saying that, of course, I would be involved."
How does she explain the misperception?
"It creates a story. It's always more interesting to see if there's tension. People have spent the last three or four years watching the tension between Gov. Schaefer and Mickey Steinberg, so they think, 'Oh, that's the story.' I think it's absolutely unfounded. I've been working very closely with Francie. We have a wonderful relationship. But it's this typical idea: Two women -- will they get along?"
During Mr. Glendening's more recent news conference on crime, Mrs. Townsend stood inches away from him, nodding as he spoke, whispering asides and touching his elbow for effect. Her body language suggested she was determined not to sit on the sidelines. Rather than speculate about her role, she's eager to get to work -- which she'll do after the inaugural. She declines to discuss whether her own ambitions include running for governor four or eight years down the road.
"I think that's a little far away," she says, laughing. "The great thing I've learned in my life is, a year and a half ago I was in a small office at the Maryland Department of Education . . . and now I'm lieutenant governor. Clearly, you never know exactly what will happen."