Maryland’s new lieutenant governor winds up a speech at a Baltimore high school, touching on the importance of hard study, of perseverence. Now she turns to her family legacy, and the passion rises in her voice.
“In the large sweep of history we are only on earth a very short time,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend says. “We ask ourselves what we have done to make life better for our community.
“You have the responsibility, the power to make change.”
In the tradition of her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, Townsend wants to bring change to Annapolis.
But with the Kennedy name and her status as the state’s first female second-in-command, there also comes scrutiny – from people who question how meaningful her role will be.
As Gov. Parris N. Glendening’s point person on law enforcement, juvenile justice and safe communities, she appears almost daily at some rally, hearing or fundraiser to push anti- crime initiatives.
“I was happy to do crime because I think it’s really tearing this country apart,” Townsend says. “It breeds fear. And I think we really have to deal with this to make people feel safe and secure.”
With her short brown hair, trim build and wide Kennedy grin, Townsend is a youthful 43. She is married to David Townsend, 47, a professor at St. John’s College. They have four daughters – Meaghan, 17, Meave, 15, Kate, 11, and Kerry, 3.
Maryland’s closest gubernatorial race in 60 years was her second campaign. She lost a 1986 congressional bid against former GOP Rep. Helen Bentley.
But in November 1994, Townsend broke five generations of political patriarchy, becoming the first Kennedy woman to win elective office. Four relatives also marked victories that fall, including her cousin, Maryland Del. Mark K. Shriver, D- Montgomery, and her uncle, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
“Kathleen will bring great enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment to her duties on behalf of the people of Maryland,” Ted Kennedy says of his niece, “and as they get to know her even better, they will understand why our family respects and loves her so much.”
Townsend, a lawyer, worked six years in the Maryland Department of Education and two years for the U.S. Justice Department before the election. Some critics call her lack of legislative experience a weakness – especially since Melvin A. Steinberg, her predecessor, logged 20 years in the General Assembly before serving William Donald Schaefer.
But Glendening wanted to avoid flaws he saw in past governor-lieutenant/governor relationships, notably Steinberg’s conflict with Schaefer in their second term. Townsend was not going to be his “wheeler-dealer” with legislators, he said. She would work in her areas of expertise.
Skeptics still doubted that Townsend’s role would be more than ceremonial, claiming she was on the ticket for the liberal votes and campaign contributions her name would bring.
And there were some rocky days. In February, detractors questioned her abilities when she awkwardly defended the governor’s cuts in aid to disabled and unemployable adults. The incident got prominent press attention. Townsend later attributed her lack of preparation to the legislative session’s hurried start.
But by the end of the 90-day session, she felt she had her feet on the ground.
Townsend says her high point was spearheading the Cabinet Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which will coordinate criminal justice planning statewide.
The council will work on violence in public schools and values education, among other issues, Townsend says, expressing confidence that “over the next couple of years we will have really made a difference.”
She is also proud of the administration’s juvenile justice reforms. The measures bring juveniles more quickly to court, streamline detention stays, double restitution limits and refocus state resources on holding young people accountable.
Del. Dana L. Dembrow, D-Montgomery, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, notes that Townsend “brings in the TV cameras and news reporters. It keeps legislators riveted on that bill….It’s good to have a state official given direct responsibility for long-range planning and structural reform of judicial processes.”
But the reforms, and Townsend’s part in them, get mixed reactions.
“I think the legislative efforts of the lieutenant governor were extremely focused,” says Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Stuart Simms. “She made it a point not to focus on the quantity, but the substance, of what was passed.”
Del. Robert Flanagan, R-Howard, the House assistant minority whip, counters that the juvenile justice measures “should have gone much further.”
Flanagan says that “given her celebrity status,” Townsend could have “widened the scope of her legislation” to include two bills he sponsored, which died. One would have made juvenile records available to magistrates or judges deciding whether to release a young criminal prior to trial. Another stripped those records of confidentiality when the young person was convicted of a gun crime.
“Let’s be candid, she wasn’t really ever elected to anything, Gov. Glendening was elected,” Flanagan adds. “The question is, what does she bring to the process of governing? Based on her prior experience, the answer is, not much.”
To other lawmakers, such criticism is unfair.
“I think that because of her family connections and visibility, people hold her up to greater scrutiny,” says Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, D-Montgomery.
The women’s legislative caucus chair, Del. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, believes Townsend is “feeling her way. I think nobody should be judged by their first three months in office.”
“I’ve heard her give wonderful speeches on juvenile justice,” she adds. “I think she shows that she cares about things. Her face lights up.”
Forehand concludes, “We knew Glendening was looking for a woman from the Baltimore area. He could have chosen someone from the House or Senate. But we were very pleased when he chose her.” -30-