Mayor race takes shape

Bell support growing as foes Henson, Dixon extend olive branch

`A lot of unusual alliances'

Schmoke staying out

power broker Gibson seeking a candidate

January 11, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore's mayoral race begins to take shape, support for City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's candidacy appears to be growing, with some of his most bitter political foes trying to win his favor.

Bell, considered one of the leading candidates in this year's mayoral election, has met with city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, his longtime nemesis -- a move that seemed improbable a couple of months ago.

In this rite of political courtship, unusual negotiations are under way and alliances are developing for a contest that has nearly a dozen people voicing interest in running for mayor. Political observers say such brokering is likely to continue during this year's campaign, in which no incumbent candidate is running for the first time in decades.

"There are going to be many twists and turns," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who announced last month that he would not seek a fourth term. "This is going to be one of the most interesting political years. You talk about strange bedfellows. You'll get a lot of unusual alliances."

Some of Bell's supporters are not so surprising. He has the backing of former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and former Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, who until a year ago had been a top aide.

Clarke and Landers have been supporters for years, but Bell and Henson had been political adversaries. Tension between them peaked in February 1996, when Bell tried to block Henson's reconfirmation as housing commissioner. Many political observers said Bell's action could permanently strain his relationship with Schmoke's administration.

Schmoke has vowed to stay out of the fray. But the other members of the city's ruling political triumvirate -- Henson and Larry S. Gibson, a prominent political strategist and Schmoke's top adviser -- appear to be shopping for a candidate to run in the September primary.

Last month, Henson announced that he would not run for mayor. Last week, he said he wants to remain housing commissioner after Schmoke finishes his term in December but will not "campaign" to retain the job.

Henson said he met with Bell and talked about ironing out their differences.

Bell acknowledged talking to Henson, but said he did so because Schmoke urged him -- and all potential candidates -- to talk with top officials in city agencies.

Another Schmoke ally, 4th District City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, is also warming to Bell. Dixon, who fought Bell in debates on the floor of the all-Democratic council, said she is willing to run for council president on a ticket with him as mayoral candidate.

"I put calls in to him," Dixon said. "I told him I'd like to talk. I don't have anything against Lawrence."

Bell said he does not believe that Henson or Dixon will be a part of his team.

"I can't imagine [Henson] wanting to work for me," Bell said. "On Sheila Dixon, I certainly respect the councilwoman and the councilwoman's work. We are very different people."

The interest in Bell stems, in part, from a poll taken last summer by the Afro-American newspaper that placed him as a leading candidate for mayor because of his name recognition.

"It's that old saying, `If you can't beat them, join them,' " said 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, one of Bell's strongest allies. "They figure they can't beat him."

But Bell also is changing how he relates to former enemies. Known as a firebrand, Bell has rarely bitten his tongue, particularly when it came to criticism of Schmoke, Gibson and Henson. When asked a month ago whether he had been talking with Gibson, Bell replied: "Larry Gibson? That'll be the day."

But after Schmoke's announcement last month and the resulting flurry of candidates, Bell softened his approach and stopped the attacks on former political enemies.

"I want to be a leader for all of Baltimore," said Bell, who has yet to officially declare his candidacy. "I have to mature to where I have dialogue with people I have differences with."

O'Malley said Bell's talks with Henson and others are not unusual, just good politics.

"I think it's the right move for Lawrence," O'Malley said. "He needs to talk to everybody."

But some Bell supporters said that while it is OK to talk with Gibson and Henson, they hope he will stop short of joining them.

"I support Lawrence Bell," said Clarke, who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Schmoke in 1995. "He knows that I will help him raise money, to meet with community groups. But I don't intend to be involved with any organization that has Larry Gibson at the helm -- and this one does not.

"I am assured that Lawrence Bell is his own boss as he always has been," said Clarke, who has volunteered to help with Bell's campaign, and his transition team if he wins.

But not everyone is on board with Bell.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings said he does not believe that Bell or the others who have expressed interest in running for mayor can handle the job.

"The list of candidates is frightening," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who is weighing a bid.

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