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Media Circus

Hand in Gov

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 7/25/2001

The next state election is more than a year off and no gubernatorial candidate has declared him- or herself, but that hasn't kept The Baltimore Times from running up the flag for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The weekly's July 13 front page featured a montage of images of Townsend superimposed over a shot of the State House, accompanied by a gushy tribute written by Anthony McCarthy, the Times' associate publisher.

The text reads like something out of KKT's own press office, with direct quotes from the proto-candidate taking up more than half its 46 column inches. While the quotes have the ring of a prepared speech, McCarthy tells me they were taken from an interview with Townsend. The writer planted the quotes in a bed of rosy rhetoric, referring to Townsend as "Maryland's celebrity Lt. Governor" and "daughter of one of American's [sic] greatest sons," and implying that Gov. Parris Glendening's No. 2--whose office carries no economic or financial function--can share credit for the state's "extraordinary prosperity."

McCarthy was coy about the piece when I asked him if it was meant as an endorsement. "I thought it was important for our readership . . . to get a sense of her speaking about [the] issues," he said, declaring that he might write a comparable "profile"--his word--"on whomever her major Republican opponent would be." He noted that U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, frequently mentioned as the possible GOP gubernatorial nominee, has "close ties" to the Times, a paper aimed at the city's African-American population. At the same time, McCarthy reminded me that his byline is a rarity in the paper, making the Townsend piece all the more extraordinary.

A seasoned Democratic political operative in his own right who has worked for prominent local Dems like U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and City Council President Sheila Dixon, McCarthy denies any relationship to Townsend's electoral machine. ("I know the lieutenant governor. . . . That's the extent of the involvement in her campaign.") But his early and elaborate praise for her does tie in with what political reporter Michael Dresser of The Sun called, in a July 9 story, Townsend's strategy of "intimidating any politician who dares to consider running against her." She's the most traditional liberal in the prospective race, and many of Baltimore's African-American political leaders--stalwarts of the old liberal coalition--are already closing ranks behind her. One vocal exception: state senator-turned-talk-show host Larry Young, who has used his radio pulpit on WOLB (1010 AM) to accuse Townsend of taking black voters for granted.

The Sun's editorial writers won't commit to a candidate until sometime next year, but there have been hints as to their druthers. A year ago, I would have pegged Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger as the morning paper's favorite, given its hectoring on his behalf during the SB 509 controversy. The Sun's editorials strongly favored Ruppersberger's bid for eminent-domain powers to clear the way for commercial exploitation of the Essex/Middle River waterfront, cheering Ruppersberger's "moxie" in confronting his grass-roots opposition. But after he lost last fall's referendum on the issue, Ruppersberger lost the aura of victory and The Sun retreated from its adulation.

In a bitter May 10 op-ed piece titled "Can Dutch run for governor?," Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial-page editor, wrote of the fiasco, "The county executive's intentions were on target, but his implementation was shockingly inept." Now, Rascovar declares, "the odds aren't in his favor." In the same column, he sneered that Townsend "can run a feel-good campaign because she's got no executive responsibilities."

The Ruppersberger piece was the first of a series by Rascovar assessing prospective candidates for the state's top job. On July 8, when he focused on Townsend, the longtime State House columnist's tone shifted to condescension. "Townsend needs to work on her weaknesses," he warned, citing her lack of administrative experience and "her tendency to get rattled when she wings it, especially if she's unprepared to answer a tough question."

Rascovar's most glowing terms--even more celebratory than McCarthy's paean to Townsend--have been showered on Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who is little known in the Baltimore area. In a June 24 column, Rascovar set out to boost Duncan's profile (and fortunes) here, declaring that the former "hard-charging mayor of Rockville" has "steered his affluent subdivision into an unparalleled era of rapid growth" and "transformed the county" over the course of two terms. To support his case, Rascovar listed five multimillion-dollar construction projects underway in downtown Silver Spring, all begun on Duncan's watch.

Rascovar's opinions don't necessarily reflect the sentiments of his peers on Calvert Street; The Sun's editorial team is no monolith, despite the image projected by its unsigned daily pronouncements. Nonetheless, the accomplishments for which Rascovar praises Duncan gibe with Sun editorialists' oft-expressed wish list for investment in Baltimore. It's safe to say the paper is looking for a pragmatic, pro-development, moderate Democrat. If Duncan's candidacy survives into next summer, don't be surprised to see The Sun promoting his cause.

Fire Down Below

Last week's subterranean train derailment, fire, and water-main break was a bonanza for local TV-news directors. The highly telegenic and multifaceted calamity provided all kinds of journalistic angles. Reporters interviewed fleeing baseball fans, affected residents, and officials from the city's fire, public-works, and health departments, while cameras feasted on smoke-belching tunnel entrances, vacant freeway ramps, and flooded intersections. As I've come to expect, WBFF (channel 45) offered the most comprehensive coverage, taking advantage of its hourlong time slot at 10 p.m. Anchor Tony Harris shed his usual breezy, ironic style and interviewed emergency officials with a determined frown and intelligent questions. WBAL (channel 11) juiced the story, unnecessarily, by tagging it with a City in Chaos logo despite video footage that showed a remarkably calm and orderly response to the situation. For that rough-and-ready, on-the-spot feeling, 'BAL dispatched a shirt-sleeved Jayne Miller to the flooded intersection of Howard and Lombard streets.

The underground inferno also meant a workout for Baltimore City Fire Department spokesperson Hector Torres, who was spared his usual sad task of announcing fatalities. No mere flack, Torres is a veteran firefighter and, incidentally, my neighbor. I hope he won't mind me saying that he's a sharp-looking guy on and off camera--more so when he's not wearing that fire-department officer's cap.

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