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Political Food for Thought

Picnic for Ex-Staffers Sparks Rumor of Townsend Senate Bid in 2006

Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s (D) invitation to ex-campaign staffers to attend a picnic at her home this Saturday has fueled furious speculation in state political circles that the unsuccessful 2002 Democratic nominee for governor could be contemplating another campaign: running for Senate in 2006.

Although the picnic at her Ruxton home is officially billed as a long overdue thank you to Townsend’s campaign staff, “word on the street is that she’s running for the Senate now,” said one person who received an invitation.

Once thought to be a possible candidate for the White House some day, the daughter of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy was stung by her surprising loss to then-Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R) in the 2002 gubernatorial election, which turned the statehouse over to the Republicans for the first time since 1969. One person close to Townsend said “there is a sadness” lingering from her defeat.

Now lecturing at Georgetown University and heading a nonprofit organization, Townsend is known to be eager to return to public service, either through elective or appointed office.

“If it turns out that running is the right answer, then absolutely,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year when asked about her political future. “I loved being in politics.”

Townsend did not respond to a message left on her cellphone this week. Her former campaign manager, Alan Fleischmann, who remains a close friend, did not return telephone messages left at his office Friday and Monday.

But if the speculation is true, Townsend is eyeing the seat of Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), who has not yet said whether he will seek a record-shattering sixth term in 2006.

“It would not surprise me if she were interested in running for the U.S. Senate, and I believe she’d be a good candidate,” said Barry Rubin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, who was Townsend’s deputy campaign manager in 2002.

Although she prepared for the 2002 gubernatorial campaign from almost the minute she was elected lieutenant governor in 1994, Townsend is known to have at least considered running for the Senate in 2000, when Sarbanes was then contemplating retirement. The idea of serving in the chamber where her father and uncles did had some obvious appeal. But Sarbanes chose to seek re-election, so the question became moot.

While she still has a national following and a cadre of loyal supporters in Maryland — and both could easily yield a fundraising advantage in a Senate race — Townsend’s disappointing 2002 campaign could create severe political problems for her should she seek another office in the Free State.

“There’s a hard-core group of KKT people, but it’s a lot smaller than it used to be,” one party leader said.

Despite being the heavy favorite at the start of the 2002 cycle, Townsend was accused of running an insular campaign that didn’t do a good enough job of reaching out to the myriad Democratic interest groups and wise men who have dominated Maryland politics for decades.

She tacked to the political center in 2002 without any discernable political benefit when her predecessor and running mate, then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D), succeeded by largely tacking left. Townsend also had a miserable showing in the Baltimore suburbs, which trend Democratic in presidential elections but tend to be more competitive in other contests.

Other than winning twice on a ticket headed by Glendening, Townsend’s only other foray into elective politics was also unsuccessful. As an assistant state attorney general in 1986, she was defeated in a Baltimore County-area House election by then-Rep. Helen Bentley (R).

What’s more, Townsend would hardly be the only Democrat taking a look at the 2006 Senate race, pending Sarbanes’ plans. Many of the state’s six Democratic House Members are potential candidates in an open-seat scenario, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) — who is frequently mentioned as a candidate for governor in 2006 — could also jump in.

Maryland Democratic leaders may also be pressured to recruit a black candidate for the Senate race. Reps. Elijah Cummings (D) and Albert Wynn (D) would fit that bill. So would national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Into this political environment comes word of Townsend’s picnic this Saturday.

This summer, she held a barbecue for her campaign volunteers at a friend’s farm in Howard County, but there was no talk of her political plans. Saturday’s event will be a far more intimate affair, meaning political strategizing is possible.

“People want to see what she has to say,” said one political operative who plans to attend.

But a veteran Maryland Democratic strategist who has also been invited does not know what to make of the talk of a possible Senate run for Townsend.

“It could be a bad game of telephone,” the strategist said. “Or she could be running for something.”

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