From the Kennedy clan, with a difference
RFK's daughter brings the name, money, authenticity but not family flash to Maryland governor's race.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is not an imposing figure. Short, petite, with a slightly crooked smile, Maryland's lieutenant governor looks more elementary school teacher than politician.
But on Sunday here, under a cobalt sky, Ms. Townsend took the podium in front of the wood-domed state capital and announced her candidacy for governor. Flanked by her husband and two of her four daughters, the Democrat told the assembled crowd of 2,000 that she wanted to succeed her current boss, Parris Glendening, and go on a "mission of rededication and renewal for the great state of Maryland."
Townsend, the eldest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, is one of a groundswell of female candidates seeking the governors' mansions this year 29 in all in various states.
Townsend, however, is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, she is clear-cut favorite in her race, something untrue of many of the others. Second, she is attempting to become Maryland's first female governor. And third, if she wins, she will be the first Kennedy ever to win a gubernatorial slot.
That distinction alone is fueling the usual speculation that she will become a national political figure, perhaps ending up on a presidential ticket at some point.
Yet Townsend is not what some would call "your average Kennedy," if indeed such a thing exists. Oratory skill is not her strong point, and she is not an artful one-on-one campaigner. Rather Townsend has found her way to the governor's race by putting in eight years as an understudy and developing a reputation for being intelligent, if not flashy. "She's never going to be a charismatic speaker, but people think she's smart," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "She may not be dynamic, but she sounds like she means it."
Even without the Kennedy touch, the family legacy played a large role in Townsend's political interest and ascendancy. The influence of her father, gunned down when she was only 17, is particularly evident.
The walls of Townsend's office are lined with pictures of Robert Kennedy meeting with dignitaries and civil rights leaders. In her conversations and speech, his name often comes up directly and indirectly. "I know what it is like to lose a loved one to crime," she told the crowd on Sunday. "I know that time doesn't heal all wounds."
But along with the tragedies, the family has aided Townsend. After doing her undergraduate work at Harvard University and getting a law degree from the University of New Mexico, she began her real political work when she advised her uncle, Edward Kennedy, on his 1982 Senate campaign.
Though she lost her first congressional race in 1986, she still landed several appointments to state and federal jobs, before being plucked by Mr. Glendening as a running mate in 1994. Those same opportunities may not have been there without her famous middle surname.
And then there is the money that comes with being a Kennedy. Sunday's announcement, with its soda pop and people in shorts, may have had a laid-back feel, but Townsend's campaign is no small operation. Her contributors' list shows money coming not only from Maryland, but from all over the United States. It is a formidable war chest that has her millions ahead of her nearest competition.
As lieutenant governor, Townsend has suffered through some noteworthy and public missteps, perhaps most memorably her misusing the word "football" when she meant "touchdown" immediately after the Baltimore Ravens won the Superbowl in 2001 a faux pas of enormous proportions in a city and state that worship the sport. But she has bounced back from them largely intact.
"She has had some pretty bad public gaffes, especially early in her tenure as lieutenant governor," Mr. Crenson says. "But she has shown she's capable of learning. She doesn't make the same mistake twice."
At the same time, Townsend has developed a reputation for being substantive, known in particular for her interest in law enforcement, education, and community service. She fought for an initiative that made Maryland the first state to require all high school students to perform 75 hours of community service before they graduate.
In fact, as Townsend embarks on her campaign, the criticism leveled against her most often is that she is not political enough, that she lacks the glad-handing gift.
Her staff and some analysts argue that this trait is an asset in the electoral climate she faces. Glendening, Maryland's current governor, has never been loved by the public and is often seen as too political. But it could be a problem if Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley decides to compete with her for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. O'Malley, who is handsome, extremely popular, and plays in a rock band, has many of the political skills Townsend lacks but little of the experience. He is in his first term as mayor, and most figure he won't try a run at governor yet.
If Townsend gets the nomination (and all real challengers have bowed out except O'Malley) she stands a good chance of winning the election in November against her likely challenger, Rep. Robert Ehrlich. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in Maryland. "If turnout is low, Ehrlich may have a shot," says James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "There's always a lot of crossover in Maryland."
But for now, she's the clear favorite. Politician or not, some of her considerable strengths were on display Sunday. Her staff was organized. Her name drew passersby, who stopped to see and hear a Kennedy speak. "She's got the momentum, and she's got the money," says Crenson. "The race is hers to lose."