ANNAPOLIS — Should Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend win the gubernatorial race in November, she will make history.
That fact, however, could be hindering her in her campaign against Republican challenger Rep. Bob Ehrlich.
Despite its image as a progressive state, Maryland has never had a female governor. Before Townsend, the state had never had a female lieutenant governor.
Do voters in Maryland have hang-ups about electing a woman to the state’s highest office?
“It’s always a challenge to be a pioneer,” Townsend said.
“Women in politics are held to a different standard,” said Townsend Press Secretary Len Foxwell. “Even with a proven record, they must constantly prove themselves to the people.”
The lieutenant governor took a blow when the latest Mason-Dixon poll revealed Ehrlich had surpassed Townsend in popularity with 46 percent of the vote to her 43 percent. A similar poll released by Gonzales/Arscott showed Ehrlich had 47 percent of the vote to Townsend’s 46 percent.
Only 19 women have held a governor’s seat in U.S. history. Five of those hold office today: Jane Swift of Massachusetts, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Ruth Minner in Delaware, Judy Martz in Montana and Jane Dee Dull in Arizona.
The closest Maryland ever came to having a female governor was Republican Ellen Sauerbrey, who lost to Gov. Parris Glendening in the 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial race. In 1994, just 5,993 votes separated the two.
Sauerbrey declined to discuss the role gender played in her race because she is awaiting Senate confirmation for an ambassadorship to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
“We’re not focused on the past. We’re more concerned with the present and the future,” Foxwell said. “We’re just presenting her record and contrasting it to Bob Ehrlich’s.”
Voters in Maryland know how effective a female leader can be in the state, said Townsend, citing the tenure of U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years before being elected to the Senate in 1986.
Townsend’s fellow Democrats may feel otherwise. Recently, Mikulski and U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., along with Comptroller William Schaefer and other state leaders, met in a Washington hotel to plan post-primary strategies in an attempt to help Townsend. The meeting was held in reaction to the poll figures and the fact that some Democrats have distanced themselves from Townsend.
In the Washington Post on Nov. 18, 2001, longtime State House reporter Tom Waldron wrote that Townsend “can be a distressingly inconsistent speaker” and that one Republican campaign consultant said, “There’s a widespread perception that she’s an empty dress.”
“There’s always underlying sexism and uncertainty,” said Debbie Walsh, president of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Walsh said a common assumption voters make of female political candidates is that they cannot balance their children and home life with their political duties.
Townsend and husband, David, have four daughters.
The lieutenant governor has been subjected to sexism, said Allan Lichtman, a political analyst and a history professor at the American University.
“I think (sexism) has hurt her in the race,” Lichtman said. “She’s been charged with lacking executive experience and not ever running a government.”
When former Democratic Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg ran for governor in 1994, Lichtman said, he had about as much political experience as Townsend, yet he did not receive the same criticism. Steinberg was defeated by Glendening in the 1994 Democratic primary.
Townsend, however, may already something of an edge on the race — her experience as a statewide officeholder.
It worked for former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who applied her experience in the 1980s as state treasurer to take her state’s top seat. Ella Grasso, governor of Connecticut from 1975-80, was secretary of state in Connecticut during the 1960s.
“She’s second in command in the state,” Walsh said. “That’s a pretty good qualification.”
However in Maryland, no lieutenant governor has ever been elected to the state’s top spot.
Critics of Townsend have said there are factors other than gender at work.
She has been criticized for failing to distance herself from Glendening and for her support of a juvenile boot camp that had reported incidents in 1999 of guards abusing and beating inmates. In addition, the state faces a projected $1.3 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year.
“I think what people are really saying here,” Townsend said, “is, `What can Kathleen Kennedy Townsend do?'” – 30 – CNS-9-27-02