Common ground in a fight for turf City budget deal hints at new era for Schmoke, Bell

June 17, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Lawrence A. Bell III's six months at the helm of the fractious Baltimore City Council have been been rife with political infighting, vote-stacking, jealousy and grandstanding -- all the elements of the council from years past.

But quietly, a significant change took place that even Bell's venerable predecessor, Mary Pat Clarke, never achieved: sitting down with the mayor to hammer out a new city budget.

The move put Bell -- who was swept in as council president on an anti-administration tide -- firmly in step with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for the first time.

How long this newly forged relationship will last is anyone's guess, but for now the two men are promising to continue to work together.

"This is unprecedented," Schmoke said June 10, just before the council recessed for the summer. "We have worked closely in the past weeks."

Schmoke said the legislative and executive branches have not cooperated so closely since he was elected in 1987.

"Tuesday the mayor gave me a call thanking me for working with the council and with him," Bell said. "I think what we have achieved in the council is that we have established our independence but shown that we are not obstructionists."

The 19-member council and Schmoke last week came up with a $2.2 billion budget plan as a result of a compromise. Schmoke wanted taxes, the council wanted cuts. The budget included a little of both.

But what the budget compromise also shows is that the council went against tradition and successfully stood up to the mayor. When Schmoke pushed for a 10 percent increase in the income tax, the council refused and held its ground.

Instead of simply blocking the mayor's agenda, the council -- with Bell, Martin O'Malley and Joan Carter Conway leading the way -- came up with a succession of cuts and compromised.

For weeks through the intense negotiations, Bell and Schmoke worked as a team. The sworn enemies had baffled those taking note of the events in and out of City Hall.

Contentious past

It was just a few months ago that the two men were locked in guerrilla warfare.

The politics of the November election lingered over the two men because Schmoke supported Vera P. Hall for council president and Bell supported Clarke, who was running for mayor.

When Bell came into office, he made a policy decision to throw all of the mayor's representatives off the council floor during meetings. He also began a campaign to lock in his choice for vice president of the council, the 4th District's representative, Agnes B. Welch.

The mayor wanted 4th District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon to have the post. Bell won.

Then Bell punished the two most avid mayoral supporters in the council, Dixon and 6th District Councilman Melvin Stukes, by denying them leadership of key council committees.

Bell seemed ahead of the game until he suffered a humiliating and very public loss at the hand of the mayor in February, trying to stack the vote against reconfirmation of housing commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, whom Schmoke strongly backed.

Bell clumsily called an early vote when most of the mayoral supporters were not in the council chambers. But he was beaten back and forced to call another vote when the mayor's supporters got wind of what happened.

Bell shouldered much criticism from his longtime supporters while city residents braced themselves for another four years of contentious council president-mayor relations, as they had under Clarke for eight years.

But then Bell nearly dropped out of sight. He became a man behind the scenes as other outspoken anti-administration council members, such as O'Malley and Conway, filled the void.

A thin line

It was in that time that Bell walked a thin line between working with the mayor on the budget and fronting a council that wanted to make its mark by forcing the mayor to play by its terms.

His avid supporters, O'Malley and Conway, wanted to play hardball with the mayor in budget negotiations while the mayor was counting on Bell to be open to his plan.

Bell persuaded O'Malley, head of the Taxation and Finance Committee, not to kill all of the mayor's proposed tax increases, as O'Malley had planned. In the meantime, Bell used threats of cutting the mayor's favored programs as bargaining chips.

"I think that [council] people are proud of what they have accomplished," Bell said. "There is a sense that people are working together and that the council is relevant as a body."

The council -- which will return Sept. 30 -- has seven new members who began the session with no clear loyalties to Bell or Schmoke. But that has since changed, with Schmoke corralling more supporters than Bell has.

Now that veteran 2nd District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, an administration opponent, has resigned to become the city's real estate officer, Schmoke likely will have even more supporters. Ambridge's replacement likely will be a Schmoke supporter.

According to Schmoke and Bell, the council may not divide into pro-Schmoke and pro-Bell camps as it has in the past.

"He is working very hard to be relegating past political battles to the dustbin," Schmoke said.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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