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Townsend avoids legislative traps during session


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had time to kill.

The House speaker and other lawmakers were running late for a Townsend news conference, trapped in their chambers by bill amendments and subcommittee scheduling - details a lieutenant governor need not sweat.

So Townsend eased through a State House conference room, shaking hands with visitors and chatting with state officials, waiting patiently to unveil a package of drunken-driving bills she has named as one of her top legislative priorities.

It's no surprise that Townsend appeared relaxed. She had just returned from a four-day visit among the snowflakes and speed skaters in Salt Lake City, waving the Maryland banner as part of the Washington-Baltimore region's bid to play host to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As the 2002 General Assembly session passed its midpoint last week, this much has become clear: Townsend is doing her best to avoid getting stuck in the quicksand of the annual 90-day marathon.

Instead, she continues to cull the benefits of a visible statewide office with no constitutional responsibilities, traveling the state and country on political goodwill missions while pursuing a few select policy issues.

It is a safe strategy at a time when stakes are high. During her final months as lieutenant governor, and in particular when lawmakers are huddled in Annapolis, Townsend's moves are increasingly scrutinized as she prepares to make the transition from team player to full-fledged candidate for governor.

If she wins election, her success as chief executive will depend largely on her skill in steering an agenda through the General Assembly. So her ability to swing votes in key committees or know when to compromise on a bill could serve as an indicator of future performance.

Townsend critics say she has sidestepped the most contentious issues facing the legislature: a budget mess and the political redistricting process.

"I don't even think I've seen her this session," said Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the House minority leader from Perry Hall. "From the appearances of it, she has not been playing a role in the legislative process. If she expects to be elected governor, she needs to create her own identity, or her identity is going to be the Glendening-Townsend legacy of taxes, borrowing and spending."

'I do get involved'

But the lieutenant governor counters that she is working hard on domestic violence and criminal justice issues, in addition to the drunken-driving bills discussed Tuesday.

"I do get involved," she said. "I think I've been actually quite engaged in those areas that I think are critical."

The time is not right, her supporters say, to plot a more distinctive course.

"She's got to go with her instincts," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Being a partner with the governor has gotten her this far."

To be sure, the lieutenant governor's performance before the General Assembly is an arcane topic, one not at the forefront of the minds of voters grappling with a slumping economy and a post-Sept. 11 world.

"The broader voting public is not going to pay much attention to the scorecard from the legislative session," said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. "It's an inside-baseball scorecard of the political intelligentsia and the media."

"Her objectives should be increased visibility, and establishing herself around several core issues which distinguish her with the body politic," Haller said. "The third objective, and probably the most important, is to avoid any serious problems. The biggest concern is not to get embroiled in controversy."

Townsend staked out a few issues of her own last month. On the opening day of the session, she told lawmakers she wanted to work with them to pass stiffer penalties for repeat drunken drivers and make it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in a car.

She also wants to link the communication systems of police, fire and state emergency workers and to curb the ability of judges to reduce criminal sentences years after they are imposed.

It is a limited agenda, but not without some peril. Some black lawmakers oppose a change in judicial reconsideration, saying it removes a safety valve for African-Americans who may be unjustly imprisoned or who reform themselves through the corrections system.

"This is what she defines as a law-and-order issue which moves the party to the center at the expense of African-Americans," said Del. Salima Siler Marriott, chairwoman of Baltimore's House delegation. "She discounts us as a force that would block her strategic move."

The agenda also skirts the toughest issues before lawmakers. Maryland faces a $1 billion gap between revenues and expenditures, and many of the solutions under discussion are one-time fixes, such as more borrowing and tapping reserves. A similar problem is expected to face a new governor next year.

"Because of the structural deficit in the budget this year and next, she is getting involved in the issue, but she needs to get more involved," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Townsend said she has been active in discussions with the legislature's budget leaders, and downplays the scope of the difficulties.

"The budget process is a fluid process," she said. "You can talk about problems at one point in the process, and later on they may not be problems as the economy improves."

Finding time away

As fiscal negotiations intensify and the session enters its most intense period, Townsend continues to find time away from Annapolis to deliver speeches and collect endorsements.

This month, she spent a day in Southern Maryland, picking up the support of U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.

"Some casual observers have missed the strength of her personality and the keenness of her mind because of her unassuming and gracious demeanor," said Hoyer in an endorsement statement that subtly addressed lingering concerns about Townsend's abilities.

Tomorrow, she will spend the day on a swing through Prince George's County, collecting dozens more endorsements from county council members, state lawmakers and candidates for county executive. One notable exclusion from the list: Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who has talked about a run for statewide office.

But even as her gubernatorial bid takes shape, Townsend has yet to make a break from the policies of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, or articulate a full vision for an administration of her own. The separation, it seems, won't come during the legislative season.

"I think the lieutenant governor is still the lieutenant governor, and we need a very harmonious session between the governor and the General Assembly," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "It would send the wrong signal if the lieutenant governor was breaching with the administration."

Added Townsend: "The governor and I have built a very strong record that I am proud of. Over the next few months, you will see what I think is important that we look to in the future. Now is not the time."

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