Bell says he plans to run for mayor

City Council president might face Mfume, his cousin, in primary

`A record of service'

Backers begin move to get NAACP president in the race

April 15, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said yesterday he intends to run for mayor, possibly setting up a Democratic showdown in September against his cousin, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.

The 10-year council veteran's comments came a day after Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a bill reducing the residency requirement for city mayoral candidates from one year to six months. While Mfume has repeatedly denied plans to run, the law would allow him to enter the contest. Last month, Mfume purchased an Inner Harbor condominium.

More than 100 state and city politicians and community leaders announced this week the formation of a political committee to raise money to publish ads encouraging Mfume to enter the race.

On Tuesday, a Draft Kweisi Mfume 2000 Committee filed papers with the city Board of Elections. The ad campaign will be launched tomorrow in the Afro-American and run Monday and Tuesday in The Sun.

But this, and efforts to change city rules to allow Mfume to run, have agitated Bell and other mayoral hopefuls, who view the actions as an affront to democracy and the city's ability to govern itself.

In addition, Mfume supporters also have suggested raising the mayor's salary of $95,000 to as much as $150,000.

Bell said he will introduce council legislation Monday to counter the state residency law, will oppose the salary increase and will fight to succeed Kurt L. Schmoke as the city's 47th mayor.

The mayor's race is the first without an incumbent in 28 years.

"I'm not going to lay down and die yet," Bell said at the city Board of Estimates meeting, making his clearest public acknowledgment yet of his plans to run. "It's a race for the office, it's not a race against anyone. We're talking about a record of service to this city."

Bell's grandfather and Mfume's mother are siblings. His comments appeared intended to intimidate Mfume from running. But those pushing the Draft Mfume movement said they believe the former West Baltimore councilman and congressman will run for mayor -- and might declare as early as May 1 -- to position himself for a run at his dream political job: U.S. senator.

Mfume declined yesterday to comment about the developments, saying through a spokesman that his sole focus remains working as leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is based in Baltimore.

But Bell's comments fueled what has been a lackluster city mayoral race, with former city councilman and school board member Carl Stokes, city activist A. Robert Kaufman and community activist Phillip A. Brown as the Democratic candidates who have filed to run.

Bell did not indicate when he would file, but his strong words stoked the political fires of council colleagues attending the estimates board meeting. "Sounded like a campaign announcement to me," said Councilman Robert Curran of Northeast Baltimore.

Five months to primary

Some suggested that despite the September primary being five months away, Bell's comments served as the race's starting pistol.

House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings scoffed at Bell's political bravado and possible challenge to Mfume, who is one of the nation's most visible civil rights leaders. Rawlings, who leads the Draft Mfume effort, has called the other candidates, including Bell, "frightening."

"He knows in a hard race with Mfume, he cannot win," Rawlings said of Bell.

To defeat the residency rule change Monday, Bell would need support of 10 council members and then would have to depend on Schmoke to sign it. If Schmoke vetoes it by failing to sign it, Bell would then have to gain 15 council votes to overturn the veto, action viewed as almost impossible in the divisive 19-member council.

Schmoke, who sits on the Board of Estimates, would not indicate whether he would support council legislation blocking the residency change. The mayor said he is hearing complaints from city residents opposing the change.

On the sidelines of the mayor's race for the first time in 12 years, Schmoke seemed to relish the twist that could result in what some are calling a political family feud. Those who believe Mfume would easily win the mayoral race might be mistaken, Schmoke said.

Turning to Bell, he said: "The rumors of your political demise are greatly exaggerated."

Council members torn

Council members attending the Board of Estimates meeting yesterday seemed torn.

Curran testified in Annapolis against changing the residency law, but signed the Draft Mfume ad. Curran ran on Bell's council president ticket four years ago, but said he is unsure how he will vote on the bill Monday.

Like many Bell supporters, Curran has been frustrated by the council leader's unwillingness to announce whether he is running for mayor. "I admire him for doing it," Curran said of a Bell candidacy. "I just wish he would make a decision."

Although Bell would relinquish his council seat to run for mayor, he would likely face a tough challenge to his council presidency anyway.

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