Townsend now viewed as political heavyweight


IT HAS been less than a month since the gubernatorial election, but already speculation is rampant about the next one.

It could be a real donnybrook. Or it could be a virtual coronation.

Looking around the political landscape, several individuals are off and running. Indeed, they were jockeying for position all through the last political campaign. And a third candidate blossomed in that race. She is regarded as an early front-runner.

Two men of substantial physical heft, Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger and Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, proved heavyweights in the recent election as they paved the way for gubernatorial campaigns.

Mr. Ruppersberger consolidated power in Baltimore County as he worked mightily to defeat strong Republican challenges to local senators and delegates. Mr. Duncan led a Democratic charge through his county that helped Mr. Glendening win handily and helped his party recapture a number of delegate seats.

Look for them to wander far beyond their respective counties in the next few years, getting to know important community figures, lining up early support and trying to outdo the other in fund raising.

Major campaigner

Their biggest concern at the moment is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She outshone Mr. Glendening as a campaigner. Her popularity and name recognition give her a big edge.

Ms. Townsend is consolidating her power. The state's new economic development secretary is a longtime Kennedy ally. The Glendening-Townsend campaign's director is now on the governor's payroll, where she can plot Ms. Townsend's strategy for 2002. Her office, not the governor's, informed Cabinet members they were being reappointed.

Yet Ms. Townsend has a major weakness -- no home base of votes. She was never a locally elected official. In a race for governor, Mr. Duncan would come out of Montgomery County with a huge plurality; ditto Mr. Ruppersberger in Baltimore County. Ms. Townsend would have to run well all over to overcome that shortcoming.

It may not be just a three-candidate field in the Democratic primary. Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry could emerge as a strong favorite.

He might be the lone African American running. If majority-black Baltimore and Prince George's County line up behind him by a lopsided margin -- as they did this year for Mr. Glendening -- Mr. Curry would be the man to beat.

Then there are the second-tier candidates -- officials with a hankering to be governor but who may not have what it takes in 2002: House Speaker Casper Taylor, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and Comptroller-elect William Donald Schaefer.

Mr. Taylor suffers from a small voter base (Western Maryland), his anti-abortion stance (a handicap in a Democratic primary) NTC and lack of visibility in the crucial Baltimore-Washington region.

Mr. Schmoke is dogged by suburban animosity toward Baltimore. His plodding mayoral record -- and the city's chronic crime and education woes -- could make him an easy target in a statewide campaign.

Political war horse

Mr. Schaefer already has served eight years as governor. Playing a secondary role in state government as comptroller may prove frustrating. Even at age 81, it is not inconceivable that the old war horse could yearn in 2002 for another term in Government House to "do it now."

What a scramble. Sadly, Republicans are in disarray. No one looms as a likely gubernatorial candidate. That may change. Rep. Bob Ehrlich is re-thinking his options. If the state party recognizes its past follies and seeks a moderate conservative such as Mr. Ehrlich, state Sen. Bob Neall, or this year's candidate for lieutenant governor, Dick Bennett, the GOP might have a shot in 2002.

All this maneuvering may prove unnecessary, though, if another scenario takes place: Mr. Glendening goes to Washington in midterm and is replaced as governor by Ms. Townsend.

It's a much-discussed possibility in some political circles.

By law, Mr. Glendening cannot run for a third consecutive term. He must find some other avenue to pursue his ultimate dream of higher elective office in Washington.

The best way would be a Cabinet post in the Clinton or Gore administrations. And who better to help make that happen than Ms. Townsend's uncle, the influential Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy?

As the incumbent, Ms. Townsend would have powerful advantages over the field in 2002.

This may strike some as political day dreaming. But for those intent on advancing their careers, this isn't speculation -- it's strategic planning.

Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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