Doing it Bell's way Council president makes friends, foes in battle with Mayor

March 17, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews

IN THE 100 days since Lawrence A. Bell III became become Baltimore's City Council President, he has angered some members of the council's black caucus, prevented some senior council members from heading committees and steamrolled a victory for pick for the vice-president's post.

But of all Mr. Bell's ups and downs, perhaps none is as poignant as his failed attempt to derail the reconfirmation of the city housing commissioner, Daniel P. Henson III. In a meeting punctuated by near fisticuffs among council members, Mr. Bell succeeded in blocking the nomination, only to get routed in a counterattack by the mayor's supporters who scrambled to overturn the vote.

After 100 days, it seems clear that Mr. Bell is locked in a guerrilla war with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. It is equally clear that a confident Mr. is undeterred by the political infighting and above all, is hell-bent on taking control of the council and shaping it into his own image.

He hasn't succeeded yet, but he has managed to stir up a lot of friends and enemies.

The council, under his tutelage, is fractious and defiant. It is boiling down into pro-Bell and pro-Schmoke camps. Few council members would admit to that, but their voting patterns on significant issues tell where they stand.

At times, Mr. Bell finds himself on the defensive, having to explain his moves and assure past supporters that he knows what he is doing. At other times, he is being hailed as the perfect nemesis to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the city's entrenched, old ways of governing.

"He is making some early mistakes," said Arthur W. Murphy, vice-president of the Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy. "He is a bright man with a great future behind him, because he is creating enemies."

Mr. Murphy, who most recently was a chief strategist for Delores G. Kelley in her failed attempt to replace former Rep. Kweisi Mfume in the 7th district, has criticized Mr. Bell before. Last summer, he was a strategist for Vera P. Hall's unsuccessful bid to become council president. He says his criticism of Mr. Bell is not personal.

Rodney A. Orange, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, sees Mr. Bell differently.

"I think that he is beginning to carve out his own niche and style," said Mr. Orange, who ran unsuccessfully for a 6th district council seat in the last election. "I think there is some concern in the community about the current animosity between him and Mayor Schmoke, but most people believe that it will work itself out for the betterment of the city."

Mr. Bell, the scrappy underdog who won a 4th district council seat in 1987, blazed his way into the city's public eye as a Mary Pat Clarke protegee with a penchant for using the Schmoke administration for target practice.

But when he became council president, he extended the olive branch to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and called him his "teacher." He said it was his way to build bridges to the mayor.

Nowadays, the mayor has some unkind words about the bridge Mr. Bell built for them.

"I wouldn't want to cross it," Mr. Schmoke said.

Mr. Bell's 100-day tenure has been full of losses and victories.

As president of the five-member Board of Estimates, he has been stymied a few times when trying to push through his initiatives. And in council, he hasn't yet been able to corral a majority bloc of council members to back his pet legislation the goal of any council presidency.

"In politics you have to make friends and you have to build coalition and consensus," Mr. Murphy said. "He's probably figured out that he can't do that."

"I would be shocked if Arthur said anything other than that," Mr. Bell retorted. "Building coalition in the council is like herding cats, because you are dealing with all these personalities. Coalition will take time and I am certain that we are moving in the right direction."

His administration, Mr. Bell said, will be defined by his initiatives to reorganize the council. He wants people, especially the mayor, to take the legislative panel more seriously.

Since coming into office, he has become a stickler for rules, pressured council members to make fewer laws, placed the newly elected members in power positions and shored up his staff with solid political insiders.

"I have raised the level of professionalism in the office," Mr. Bell said. "We have tightened up the rules and the enforcement of rules."

Indeed, the council meetings, scheduled for every Monday at 5 p.m., begin on time every week. Under former council president Mary Pat Clarke, the meetings would often not get underway until well after 5: 30 p.m., or whenever council members decided to saunter in.

And he has forced council members to submit all new legislation for the Monday meetings by the Friday before, so that his office and other council members can review it. Before this change, council members sometimes submitted surprise legislation often minutes before the council meetings.

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