Intense Bell in a hurry to be mayor

February 09, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT THE Cafe Hon on 36th Street, Lawrence Bell eyes the blueberry pancakes but doesn't quite approach them. Eat your breakfast, you want to tell him. You're too skinny. He is 37 years old and built like dental floss. He wants to be mayor of Baltimore. He looks all dressed up for promotion to senior high school.

The current mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, was 38 when he got the job. In the final months of a 12-year run, he admits he wasn't ready for it. Bell sloughs off all comparisons with this mayor, some of them with barely restrained heat.

Look at the mayors we remember, he says. Look at Schaefer, look at Du Burns, look at D'Alesandro. All worked their way through the City Council, all understood the give and take of government, all understood the importance of the ethnic mix in any city that works.

This mayor - state's attorney before his City Hall stint - too often seemed not to get it. A city waited for signals that he wanted to build bridges, and waited some more. Bell, the City Council president, says he waited for his own Schmoke signals that never arrived.

``We're in a city that needs somebody to reach out,'' he says. ``Some people understand this, and some people don't. Du Burns understood. When I first ran for a council seat, I was on Pennsylvania Avenue, giving a speech and, I don't know, just blasting away.

``Du got up then, and gave half his speech about me. He said, 'I like you, you got a lot of guts, but you don't know anything. I want to talk to you.' And he took me back to his office and spent two hours with me, giving me a whole history of West Baltimore. I was nobody, and he took two hours.

``When I got to City Hall, I kept hearing, 'Mayor Schmoke, he's a great guy.' But, after a while, you realize, yeah, but you can't get to him. Everybody feels they're out of the loop, and they resent it. And blacks feel as alienated as whites. We've got to change [See Olesker, 5b] that.''

He again eyes the pancakes in front of him, reaches for his fork, puts it back down. He's already biting off as much as he can chew. With his cousin, Kweisi Mfume, insisting he won't run for mayor, many see Bell as the front-runner. But they wonder about his age, his experience, his approach to sensitive social issues.

Bell grew up around Liberty Road in northwest Baltimore County, went to Randallstown High School when it was beginning serious integration, and calls the experience ``a blessing. I was exposed to a lot of different people. I think it's made me comfortable going into any neighborhood.''

He went to the University of Maryland in College Park, then tried law school but dropped out, went to work assisting his father's dental practice. He still keeps an apartment above the dental office, by Auchentoroly Terrace and Gwynns Falls Parkway. He's never married, never owned a home. He is not only young, but inexperienced in certain elements of life.

``Yes,'' he says, ``I got obsessesed with this thing.'' The career, he means. ``If I had to do it again, I'd pay more attention to my personal life. I'm not a TV watcher. I'm becoming a computer geek. I like jazz. But, mostly, I like being among people. I like going to community meetings. The city has become my life. It's consumed me.''

On some city issues, he talks tough. Unlike this mayor, he favors a zero tolerance approach to crime, says he's ``willing to stake my entire career on it. It goes directly to the heart of quality of life in the city.''

So do the schools. Bell talks about school board members who are ``very nice people, but not the best for the job. This mayor tried to micromanage the schools. You can't. You've got to trust your on-site people, and you've got to stress things we've forgotten.

``We should have courses in basic conversational English and etiquette. Our kids' biggest problem is that they can't talk. Tie the course into current events. It fascinates me that these kids come out of school and can't talk. And, because of that, they have no self-esteem.

``It starts with the family. We have to face up to it, we've got a lot of families that have messed up. It's a given, but we don't deal with it. And we've got all these disruptive kids that we can't wait to get rid of, instead of finding alternative sites for them. Kids will fight you. But if you show them you have standards, they appreciate that you care. They're not getting that at home.''

The pancakes on Bell's plate remain untouched. He's running late for a school meeting. Again, he's asked about his age, about being younger now than Schmoke was when he first became mayor.

``I'm young,'' he says, ``but I started young. There are people in this town who think I'm an old --. I haven't missed a council meeting, or a vote, in 11 years. I'm the Cal Ripken of legislative politics. I've been there through every fight. I've seen where we've lost our way.''

He's a young man in a hurry: too busy for breakfast, too late for a nearby school meeting, too frustrated with a city coming apart while those who run it remain behind closed doors.

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