The 'Big Boss' in the Maryland Governor's Office Is Now a Silent First Lady

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 8, 2002; Page C01

The new first lady of Maryland is mute.

She is young and lovely, with a black wrap around her pale shoulders. She has accompanied her husband, Democrat Parris Glendening, on their first visit to the White House as a couple. In the arrivals room, where politicians traditionally pause to offer sound bites to the press, they face reporters.She is just barely pregnant, but that's still a secret. At this moment, Jennifer Crawford is a picture without sound.

A reporter lobs a slow one. Ms. Crawford, how do you like being first lady of Maryland?

The first lady offers a tight smile. Her blond hair is pinned back and her eyebrows are ribbon-thin crescents.

Another reporter, a sweet-looking elderly lady, says, Ms. Crawford, congratulations!

The first lady mouths back a "Thank you," with no sound. She will not be quoted.

The other first ladies at last month's National Governors Association Dinner seem to own their titles. They stand a few feet from their husbands, engaging the press behind the rope line in the casual chitchat that politicians' spouses are expectedto engage in. The first lady of Wisconsin talks about cheese. Lisa Collis, the new first lady of Virginia, banters about her black skirt and blouse ensemble, how it's the same thing she wore to her husband's inauguration. "Different stockings, maybe," she quips.

But Jennifer Crawford is not like most first ladies. With the exception of announcing her pregnancy last week, she's not talking to reporters. She's notmaking speeches. She's not promoting a pet project. She is, in short, trying to remain a private figure in a public position, which may be Mission Impossible. With only 10 months left in her spouse's term, Crawford will be "focusing a lot on my family, getting ready for the baby," due in early September, "and taking care of my husband," she said in her only public remarks.

"In her mind she's not the first lady," says Karen White, a friend and former colleague who managed Glendening's 1998 campaign. "In her mind she's just Jen, who just happened to marry Parris."

Is this okay? With Crawford silent, Maryland's voters are largely at a loss to know their first lady. But they do know the striking facts: that Crawford dated Glendening even as she worked as his deputy chief of staff; that the newlyweds are 59 and 35, nearly a quarter-century apart in age; that until two months before their Jan. 25 wedding, Glendening was still married to (although separated from) his wife of 25 years. And they know the gossip that fills the vacuum around Crawford, some of it vicious.

She is an intensely private person, friends say, and that translates to a cipher at the governor's side. Inscrutable.

Like right now. As the governor talks to reporters at the White House about Maryland's financial health, Crawford doesn't make eye contact with them. She barely smiles. Her brown eyes flit from her husband's face to an empty spot on the air, then back again. She links 10 fingers around his arm, like it's a life preserver.

The Rumor Mill

When it comes to public figures, "the more elusive, the more of a story," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a Los Angeles-based historian of White House first ladies. "Even if there's very little to go on, some kind of public persona will be shaped. Even if it's false, even if it's based on gossip."

Jennifer Crawford's introduction to public life began with rumors. The governor, separated, was supposedly having an affair with a woman on his staff. In May last year, a small Southern Maryland tabloid published a cover story headlined "Governor to Quit Over Love-Child." Not true, but the rumors would not go away.

Later that summer, Maryland political don and Glendening foe William Donald Schaefer used the rumor in his fight to get a particularly precious fountain turned back on. He told reporters he was taking his case to Crawford, since she was "the big boss." Days later, amid questions concerning the ethics of the governor's relationship with a staffer, The Washington Post reported that Glendening had been spending nights at Crawford's house.

The chase was on.

But for whom? The story is a talker -- especially in Annapolis, which can feel as insular as summer camp -- but the central figure is elusive. And the closer you try to get to Jennifer Crawford, the more you discover a seeming paradox. In perception, there are two Jennifer Crawfords, so far apart in temperament, motivation and ambition as to be nearly alter egos. There's Jen, smart, generous, hardworking and dignified, according to people close to her. And there's the big boss, power-hungry and manipulative, according to some Annapolis insiders -- lobbyists, interest groups, figures unfriendly to the governor. (The governor declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Crawford.)

In the gossip that floats around the State House -- tempered by the governor's recent melanoma surgery -- she has her "tentacles spread across state government." One observer calls her "Maryland's own Eva Peron."

And while Maryland has no policies restricting relationships between government managers and their employees, there are troubling questions. Until her marriage to Glendening, when she resigned, Crawford was one of three deputy chiefs of staff. She handled environment and smart growth -- issues about which both she and the governor are passionate -- so her professional influence was to be expected. But the personal relationship made murky just how much influence Crawford had, and why. Some insiders suggest that she was behind the departures of three high-level staffers since May. In interviews recently or at their departures, the former staffers did not corroborate this or could not provide evidence in either direction.

How do you interpret these details? It depends on which Jennifer Crawford you believe in.

Many of Crawford's former colleagues describe a sharp-minded "workaholic" with a knack for knowing how to talk to people in a job that calls for subtlety and finesse.

"Whenever I had an issue I wanted to discuss with the governor's office, I called Jen," says former state senator John A. Pica Jr., now a lobbyist. "Jen has very good political instincts."

"She works very well with people in power," says Claire Magner Hannan, who worked with her in Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office in the early '90s. Crawford had started in the Maryland Democrat's mailroom after college graduation in 1990, and worked up to deputy director of operations. "I would always go to her for advice in talking with the senator."

Crawford's friends suggest that she is the victim of her own success. She is young and female, and rose fast in the governor's office after pitching in on his '94 campaign. She joined his first administration shortly after it started as a special assistant to the governor, helping with daily briefings and personal correspondence, and became his liaison to the Board of Public Works. After serving as a deputy campaign manager in '98, she returned to the governor's office in a cabinet position overseeing the governor's political appointments, then became deputy chief of staff in June 2000, earning $103,000.

"She makes a very convenient target for people," says Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). "She is very self-assured, she is very confident, and she is very assertive."

In the last week of the 1998 campaign, Crawford let a reporter shadow her for a piece on campaign life. Rushing around the Audubon Society's Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase before a fundraiser, she displayed a soldierly quality -- polite, reserved, no-nonsense. At one point she headed into the Woodend mansion just as it was being cleared for a security sweep.

"Oh, wait!" yelled a campaign worker. "You guys can't go through -- "

Crawford just stepped over a red rope and kept on walking.

"When you first meet Jen you may incorrectly think she is cold," says Peter Hamm, communications director for the '98 campaign. "The reality is the world would be a better place if everyone had a heart as big as hers."

Weighing In

Maybe there's something else behind the gossip, something Crawford's personality has nothing to do with: It seems such a familiar story. The office romance. The age difference. His power, her beauty. The governor, now in his third marriage (Crawford in her first). If this were a play, Crawford would fit one of two archetypes: the trophy wife or the power-mad climber. (And the governor -- well, he wouldn't get off easily, either.)

Plenty of people have strong opinions about the marriage. Take the response to the wedding photo. On Internet message boards and in letters to the editor, Marylanders expressed scorn. Crawford's shoulderless dress showed too much skin. And look -- there! -- did she look pregnant?Worst of all to some of them was the gray-haired governor's hand on his youthful bride's shoulder.

One Marylander wrote the Baltimore Sun: "Thanks so much for running that nice picture of the governor with the new Mrs. Glendening. I assume it was a recent photograph, taken at her senior prom."

If that picture is worth a thousand words, as one Crawford critic sniped,what might the bride's own words be worth?

Crawford's attempts to be almost a nonentity in the media, despite her new status as the wife of a highly visible public official, has arguably done little to refute her critics.

But they are consistent with how she has always been, colleagues say. Crawford has never been the sort to volunteer personal details at work or chitchat with reporters. "She doesn't think . . . that the press is always fair and evenhanded to public figures," Hamm says.

And perhaps her instincts for privacy are savvy, says state Sen. Ida G. Ruben(D-Montgomery). In light of the newness of the marriage and the governor's recent illness, Ruben says, "If she did speak out now, people would criticize her for that."

As first lady, says Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill, Crawford will accompany her husband to events and act as hostess when "appropriate," but won't use her post to champion any specific issues.

"She will be helping ensure that everything this administration has made a priority for the last seven years is noted and improved," says Morrill, who doesn't rule out eventual speaking engagements.

Maryland House of Delegates Majority Leader Maggie L. McIntosh, a Democrat from Baltimore, has known Crawford since they both worked in Mikulski's office. She recalls running into her last year after the relationship became public.

"She was in Target, she was alone, she was buying items for her home, and Target for her was like a sanctuary where she finally found some peace -- nobody was following her," McIntosh says. "She had a sense of humor about it but I could also see the fatigue."

Family History

Raised in Catonsville, in Baltimore County, Crawford was the youngest of three children. Her father was an attorney with an interest in local politics, her mother a homemaker with artistic inclinations. Jennifer was, her father says, a bright, sociable and highly sensitive child.

As she matured, James E. Crawford says, she developed an interest in charitable work. "She was keenly aware of the people who were underprivileged."

Crawford, 62, says he and his wife divorced in 1976, when Jennifer was about 10. The children lived primarily with their mother after that. Jennifer was educated at Archbishop Keough High, a girls' parochial school in Baltimore. She spent two fall semesters at what is now the Community College of Baltimore County, then followed sister Cynthia, currently an Annapolis attorney, to Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. There she was president of the Young Democrats Club, and like both of her siblings majored in political science.

When her brother, James Jr., now an attorney in Catonsville, ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates in 1986, Jennifer managed his campaign. She volunteered in five state and national campaigns between 1982 and 1992, including Doug Wilder's successful bid for Virginia governor in 1988 and Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential race.

Crawford's friends say she is a devoted environmentalist who ishealth-conscious, enjoys exercise and doesn't eat red meat and poultry. In her almost three years at Mikulski's office, she helped organize after-work outings and played on the softball team.

She has a strong interest in children and child welfare, colleagues say. After leaving Mikulski's office, she spent a year and a half as director of administration for the Prince George's Child Resource Center, a nonprofit that offers child care referrals and training.

But the director wouldn't discuss her time there. Likewise, her mother in Annapolis and her siblings declined to be interviewed, honoring her request for privacy. Her political science professor at Randolph-Macon said it was inappropriate to comment.

Those who did talk offered illumination into the Jennifer Crawford behind the work persona.

White, Glendening's '98 campaign manager, remembers how her friend helped her in a family emergency two years ago. When White and her husband had to leave the house at 3 a.m., it was Jen they called to look after their 2-year-old daughter. And when White returned the next morning, she was struck by the sight of Jen scurrying around the kitchen. Jen had remembered a passing comment White had once made -- that her daughter adored pancakes -- and was making them to comfort the crying child. It touched White immeasurably.

History's Obligations

How much of a first lady is the first lady obligated to be? Can she pick the parts she wants and decline others? Can she dine with the president and live at the governor's mansion, and have the governor's spokesman speak on her behalf -- yet not take on duties traditionally associated with first ladies?

Crawford's predecessor, Frances Hughes Glendening, was an outgoing public speaker who championed the arts and women's history and founded several charitable nonprofits. When her husband headed the National Governors Association, she chaired the spouses leadership committee, even after they separated.

Crawford contrasts with how historians say Americans have come to think of their first ladies, on both the state and national level: as role models.

The public has a "sincere interest in seeing how these highly visible women perform their roles," says Maurine H. Beasley, a journalism professor and Eleanor Roosevelt scholar at the University of Maryland.

Gil Troy, a historian of first ladies at McGill University in Montreal, says, "We use the first lady not only as a role model but also a metaphor for what the modern American woman is all about."

First ladies have causes. Like Patricia Hughes's historical remodeling of Government House. Or Frances Glendening's arts and women's history. Or the fountain that Hilda Mae Snoops, then-Gov. Schaefer's companion, had installed at the governor's mansion -- the one Glendening refused to turn back on to conserve water, which infuriated Schaefer, which fueled the outing of Glendening's romance with Crawford.

But put aside expectations. In the first place, as many observers point out, 10 months does not give the first lady much time to develop an agenda. Moreover, shouldn't she define the role as she sees fit?

State Sen. Barbara Hoffman (D-Baltimore) says the role of first lady in Maryland is "whatever you make of it. It doesn't have an official status."

Emily Oland Squires, who studies Maryland's first ladies at the state archives, says they have become more activist in the last century. As far as public opinion is concerned, she says, "I think there's kind of an inclination to say, 'Oh, that person should be out there.' But I don't think that's fair. I think it's a personal decision."

And Crawford chooses privacy.

"She doesn't understand" the curiosity about her, says White. "She's like, 'Why do people care about this? I've never been a public person. . . . I'm not going to go on a crusade.' "

"The spouse of a governor is a public figure," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. But at the same time, "you can raise or lower your profile according to your activities. . . . The wife of a governor is not just a puppet of the press."

Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.), who went through his own messy -- and very public -- divorce recently, is perhaps uniquely situated to speak to this issue. Asked what parts of Crawford's life are public, he names her biography, her career history and anything in the public record. "Snooping" is not okay, he says.

But what is snooping? Is it snooping to interview Jennifer Crawford's father if he is willing to talk, even if she isn't?

The Proud Father

Jim Crawford moves slowly now. Even getting up from a couch is difficult. A series of strokes about 10 years ago forced him to close his law practice, he says. He lives at his elderly mother's house in Catonsville, along with his girlfriend and son Michael. His mother respects her granddaughter's wishes for privacy, and waits in the kitchen while her son talks in the living room.

Jim Crawford does not see his daughter often. The governor's spokesman terms their relationship "distant," declining to elaborate. Jim Crawford disputes that, and notes that he attended the wedding. He lights up when he speaks about that day, the first time he met Parris Glendening.

Jennifer "really did sparkle," Crawford says. He was proud to think "she had elevated herself in society to the point where she was considered eligible to be the first lady of Maryland."

He calls his girlfriend upstairs to reminisce. Dawn Mertel is 34 and Jim Crawford's former secretary. She has been dating him for 14 years, but has met Jennifer only a handful of times. The wedding was "lovely," "beautiful," "classy," she says. Beef and potatoes and salad.

Jim Crawford's mother emerges. She is uncomfortable with this interview, and chides Mertel for talking.

"But I was saying nice things," she protests.

If you were any other person, Jennifer Crawford's grandmother tells a visitor, you'd be welcome. But you're a reporter, and you shouldn't be here.

If you want to know about Jennifer, she says, why not ask Jennifer?

© 2002 The Washington Post Company