Thursday, September 12, 2002

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s name recognition and sizable war chest kept some political heavyweights on the sidelines, but they weren’t enough to scare off a retired grocery-store clerk seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Robert Raymond Fustero stunned politicians and pundits across the state Tuesday when he and his unemployed, formerly homeless running mate won 20 percent of the vote.

Mr. Fustero told The Washington Times yesterday he was surprised, too: He thought he would have won more.

“I was expecting 25 percent,” he said. “I was telling my supporters we can even get 45 percent.”

The 51-year-old Silver Spring resident spent less than $1,200 and managed to siphon off more than 105,000 Democratic votes in a primary that was supposed to belong to Mrs. Townsend, who got about 416,000 votes, is reported to have raised more than $6 million so far.

Mr. Fustero’s bid was self-financed. He had no Web site, no campaign managers and no signs posted in people’s front yards. He said he spent about $600 on printing fliers and campaign buttons. Another $600 went toward filing fees for his candidacy.

“After [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O’Malley and [Prince George’s County Executive] Wayne Curry decided not to run, there was no one left who the average voter could identify with,” Mr. Fustero said.

Mr. Fustero said he made a connection with the lower- and middle-class people in the state people who did not identify with the “$6 million Kennedy war machine people who were dissatisfied and unhappy.”

His running mate, Linda Atkins, was homeless for eight years and now volunteers in food kitchens. Their platform focused on those most affected by cuts to community colleges and the tobacco tax increase this year, Mr. Fustero said.

The people who voted for him did so for the same reasons he decided to run, he said.

But some politicians and analysts say his success has more to do with Democrats’ dissatisfaction with the lieutenant governor’s campaign.

“People have voted to give her a message that she has got to do some new things,” said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former governor who has in the past criticized the Townsend campaign. “She is a bright young lady, but she hasn’t had the best advice from her advisers and has relied on inexperienced people. She needs to get new people into her campaign.”

Mr. Schaefer added that Mrs. Townsend also needed someone on her team who really knows the state and its diverse areas so she could connect with the people. “She has got to give the feeling that she is talking to them.”

Other political observers also mentioned her campaign.

“When an unknown candidate does so well, it shows dissatisfaction with the party candidate,” said Paul S. Herrnson, a political analyst at the University of Maryland who believes Mrs. Townsend has been running a “shabby campaign.”

By contrast, her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., “is an able, smooth manipulator and an expert in manipulating symbols,” Mr. Herrnson said.

“He is a candidate that is very personable and likable, and people are likely to see him as a moderate when elections roll around.”

Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David Paulsen said he did not believe the 20 percent vote for Mr. Fustero signaled any dissatisfaction with Mrs. Townsend.

“Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in the state since 1986,” Mr. Paulsen said.

Still, the longshot candidate won more than half the votes Mrs. Townsend did in some counties like Baltimore and along the Eastern Shore.

Mr. Fustero retired last year after 28 years as a Giant Food grocery-store clerk. Before that, he worked at a halfway house in Riverdale.

He said he has not yet decided whether he wants to continue in politics.

“I’m not looking for a career as a politician,” said Mr. Fustero, who ran, unsuccessfully, for the state’s 8th Congressional District seat 20 years ago.

“This was just a one-shot thing to bring attention to the current administration and the failure it’s been. I hope there’s some kind of message there for somebody.”

•Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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