Six city unions back Bell to fill out McLean's term

May 26, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Norris P. West and Gary Gately contributed to this article.

Emphasizing the importance of an independent voice in Baltimore government, six of the largest city unions lined up yesterday in support of Councilman Lawrence A. Bell to serve the remainder of the comptroller's term.

Leaders of the unions representing well over half of Baltimore's 25,000 municipal workers endorsed the outspoken young councilman to replace indicted Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean if she should step down or be convicted of theft and misconduct charges.

The other main contender for the position is Councilwoman Iris G. Reeves, D-5th, a longtime council incumbent who has the backing of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"The term watchdog is important to us," said Irene Dandridge, president of the 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union. "We have been hit hard by privatization, and this all goes before the Board of Estimates. There has to be some independence."

At a news conference at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, Mr. Bell, D-4th, pledged to closely scrutinize attempts to expand the city's venture into school privatization. Mr. Bell also said he'd bring an "open-door policy" and fiscal responsibility to the job.

"I am not interested in being contentious, but I am going to be independent," he promised.

The unexpected endorsement increases the visibility of Mr. Bell, once an ally of the mayor's who has since taken increasingly controversial positions. A year ago, he called for the resignation of the former police commissioner after the city's 1992 murder toll climbed to 335.

However, political insiders were quick to point out that it's up to the 19-member council to choose a replacement if Mrs. McLean should leave before her term ends in 1995.

A number of council members called the union action premature because the comptroller still is on an indefinite leave of absence.

Mrs. McLean stepped temporarily aside in December amid allegations that she stole more than $25,000 and tried to arrange a lucrative city lease of the former headquarters of her travel agency. She is under psychiatric care for depression.

"This is a new and unusual situation," said Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, a 5th District Democrat who favors Mrs. Reeves as a "strong, sturdy, consistent" candidate.

She added that the unions have one goal, halting the trend toward privatization, compared with the broad range of issues other community leaders must consider when selecting a comptroller.

Mrs. Reeves, who has said she only wants to serve on an interim basis, was taken by surprise.

A Democrat who has represented the 5th District since succeeding her husband in 1983, she said she shares concerns about widespread privatization and wants to meet with union leaders to get an explanation of their endorsement.

Nevertheless, she said, "There aren't any groups outside the council that have a role to play."

Although Mr. Bell has little financial background besides running the dental business of his father, union leaders representing teachers, firefighters and other municipal workers said they were more focused on finding an independent voice for the Board of Estimates. The mayor controls three of the five votes on the board that approves city expenditures.

Mr. Bell can pick up the day-to-day skills on the job, said Cheryl D. Glenn, president of the 7,000-member City Union of Baltimore.

The two people with the most power to sway the situation are the mayor and council president.

Observers point to the competition for a successor as a potential preview of next year's mayoral fight. While Mrs. Reeves has the mayor's support, Mrs. Clarke, who plans to challenge the mayor in 1995, is said to be quietly siding with Mr. Bell.

Yesterday, Mrs. Clarke called the endorsement "significant," and said she believes it "speaks to the community support" of Mr. Bell.

Mayor Schmoke said Mr. Bell has backed employee unions.

"I don't think any of us want to appear to be pushing Mrs. McLean to make a decision prematurely," he said.

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