Four Years of Effort Polish Townsend
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page C01
Four years ago today, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend blundered her way through a speech before 500 restless welfare advocates in Annapolis. It was such a disaster that many political activists concluded Maryland's new lieutenant governor wasn't ready to perform in the big leagues.
Last week she gave a pair of speeches one when President Clinton came visiting and a second when Vice President Gore dropped in with the smooth delivery of a practiced orator. Then she basked in the men's praise for the programs she had helped initiate. Gore, in particular, poured it on.
"Kathleen has done more as lieutenant governor for Maryland than most governors have done for their states," the vice president said Friday as he saluted 27 new graduates of the state's Police Corps program, which Townsend helped found.
Townsend's political ascendancy has startled many of the observers who had dismissed her as a lightweight buoyed only by the Kennedy family name. A year or two ago, the early Democratic favorites for the 2002 governor's race were Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger III.
Today, most political insiders agree that Townsend is the one to beat. She has noticeably improved her speaking and campaigning skills while tirelessly crisscrossing the state to champion many popular programs. She's more prepared for meetings, and even her wardrobe, makeup and hairstyle look better. Once teased by friends for her indifference to fashion, Townsend, 47, now has a sharper, more modern look, making occasional visits to salon, including Jean Paul's parlor in Washington.
"She's on a roll," said D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown lawyer and former majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates. "She has been out toiling in the vineyards for the last four years. . . . She's been going to all the exchange clubs, making appearances at the PTA meetings. The cumulative effect of that can be very strong."
Despite her political lineage she's the eldest child of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy and the niece of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) Townsend was not a naturally gifted speaker when Parris N. Glendening (D) tapped her as his running mate in 1994. She was virtually hooted off a stage at St. John's College on Valentine's Day 1995, when she was unable to explain to a large gathering of welfare advocates why the new Glendening-Townsend administration had just axed a program for disabled people.
But Townsend, unlike many politicians, is thick-skinned and eager to have colleagues critique her performances and recommend changes, say several people who know her well.
"She wants to learn, and she listens to people, and she reaches out for a lot of advice," said Peter Hamm, chief spokesman for last fall's Glendening-Townsend reelection campaign. "She's got a personal speech coach," Hamm said. "I remember the first time I heard her talking about it, trying to pass along the tips to the governor. That didn't go over too well."
Over the last four years, Glendening has steadily given more responsibilities to Townsend, helping her enhance her public image. She took the leading role on criminal justice and gun-control issues during their first term, and now Glendening is handing her the reins for economic development and worker training.
In return, Townsend has helped the governor, whose relationship with Maryland voters has never been warm. By the time of the 1998 reelection campaign, Townsend proved so much more popular than Glendening that she became a mainstay of their campaign TV ads, introducing him as a shy, "quiet man."
Townsend, a lawyer and Harvard University graduate, has written dozens of magazine articles over the years on juvenile justice, public education and other issues.
"She has always been very focused on the written word," said Alan H. Fleischmann, her chief of staff. "Now she has become equally focused on the spoken word. . . . She did solicit advice from people, both professional and from her staff."
Some who have watched Townsend over the last four years say she has improved in almost every aspect of being a politician.
"There's been a big change, and the people of Maryland have gotten to know her better," said Daphne Bloomberg, a Democratic activist from Montgomery County who considers herself a friend to both Townsend and Duncan, who may face each other in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor. "She knows how to say thank you. She pays close attention to who helps. She has absolutely a 4.0 [or straight A's] staff around her, and they work as a family."
Not all Maryland officials and politicians are convinced that Townsend has made dramatic strides. A few legislators still roll their eyes at the mention of her name, remembering speeches or committee hearings where she seemed more like a cheerleader than a persuasive policy advocate.
Several key players say they are keeping an open mind, waiting to be convinced.
"I think she's going to try," said Champe C. McCulloch, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, regarding Townsend's efforts to woo the business community. "If she does, I think business people are willing to be open-minded. Someone who carries the Kennedy name in Congress is not generally seen as a friend of business. But she's a different person."
Still, many observers say Townsend is a more disciplined, predictable speaker who has curbed her tendency to veer into odd, perplexing comments. In a 1997 commencement speech at Cecil County Community College, for example, she baffled many graduates by noting how cute they probably were as kindergartners, then adding: "Notice I emphasize were!"
Townsend now sticks more closely to her prepared speeches, and when she speaks extemporaneously, she seldom wanders into such asides. Some associates say it's because friends have told her to knock it off, and she listened.
"She's always open to constructive ideas and constructive criticism," Fleischmann said.
In an interview Friday, after she introduced Gore at the Police Corps ceremony in Linthicum, Townsend declined to discuss details of her self-improvement program, such as her speech coach. But she said: "What I have done, basically, is ask for advice almost everywhere I go. After an event such as this one, I would ask what went right, what went wrong, what could we do better. So I'm always anxious to hear people's comments about what our office could do better, how we could be more responsive."
Townsend said Marylanders feel more comfortable with her because she has attended hundreds of meetings dealing with her pet projects, including: the "HotSpots" program that concentrates resources from the community, police agencies and other institutions on high-crime areas; community service programs now required of all Maryland high school students; and a "Break the Cycle" program aimed at keeping parolees, probationers and inmates drug-free.
"I think people see me as someone who gets things done," she said.
Friends and skeptics alike agree that her Kennedy connection gives her a big political advantage. She attracts volunteers and campaign contributors from throughout the nation in a way no other lieutenant governor can match.
Allies, however, note that Townsend lost a congressional bid in the Baltimore suburbs in 1986, and they say she can't win a statewide election on her famous name alone. That's why she works long hours, generally six days a week, to underscore her role as a promoter of substantial public policy innovations, they say.
Polls and focus groups in 1998 found that Maryland voters "are obviously aware of who her family is," said Bob Shrum, the Glendening-Townsend campaign's media adviser last fall. "But they mostly judge her as an individual. They're certainly knowledgeable about the crime stuff" that Townsend has championed. "There's a lesser sense but it's still real with children" and education programs.
Aides say Sen. Kennedy, Townsend's uncle, made numerous fund-raising phone calls on her behalf in 1998. They say he and other family members now realize she may go farther in politics than her brothers and cousins.
"I sense the powers within the Kennedy hierarchy have said it's show time," Poole said, and Townsend may be the first of her generation ready for the big stage.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company