Bell pulling political strings of his own in mayoral race

April 29, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN HIS effort to become mayor of Baltimore, Lawrence Bell now declares with straight face that politics has no place in a political campaign.

He wishes us all to be virgin again. It dawns on the City Council president that if his cousin Kweisi Mfume enters the race for mayor, then the entire business is over. Thus, Bell attempts to undo what he characterizes as cynical and underhanded State House political maneuvering with what he characterizes as clean and wholesome City Hall political maneuvering. And he hopes no one will notice the mirror image.

The other night, he co-sponsored a City Council bill to restore a one-year residency requirement for all mayoral candidates. This would eliminate an Mfume candidacy made possible only two weeks ago, when Gov. Parris Glendening signed legislation reducing the old 12-month requirement to six months, thus slipping Mfume in just under the wire.

Bell's motives are absolutely clear -- and thus, both laudable and laughable.

A residency requirement for political office makes sense -- up to a point. Nobody wants some stranger showing up on election eve who doesn't know the town, doesn't know its people, [See Olesker, 5b] its rhythms, its strengths and its secrets, who is thrust into the job by some political Old Boy Network intent on holding onto power for its own selfish reasons.

But such a scenario is not what has happened here, and for all his talk of political machinations in Annapolis, Bell surely knows the truth of it as he conducts his own machinations in Baltimore.

He's a fine young fellow, this Bell. No kidding. He's earnest, and idealistic, and speaks with an enthusiasm that's been missing from the mayor's office for, oh, about a dozen years now. But that's not necessarily the same thing as being ready to run a big city.

And there are those in public life -- in politics, and in business -- who looked at the list of mayoral candidates lining up last winter and, in their absolute panic over the names they saw, began asking themselves: Is there no one left in Baltimore with some political stature?

They looked at Bell and saw a 37-year-old. When Kurt Schmoke became mayor, he was 38. Only in the past few months has Schmoke acknowledged that, when he took the job, he wasn't nearly ready for it. And Schmoke's experience, in politics and in life, was considerably more sophisticated than Bell's.

They also looked at Carl Stokes, the former city councilman and school board member. Stokes is a man of honor and passion, and an intelligence that mixes the streets and the boardroom. He's got a clear eye and a low tolerance for those in public life who simply go through the motions.

But Stokes also has a mixed record getting himself elected, which worries potential financial backers. He's been spending hours each day on the telephone, trying to raise money. He hears the sound of people hesitating. The other night, Stokes held an important fund-raiser at Westminster Hall, and maybe a hundred people bought tickets. This is not the picture of a political tidal wave.

And so, for many, there is a waiting game for Mfume's official declaration.

On Monday at City Hall, at Lawrence Bell's behest, Councilman Norman Handy introduced the bill to change the residency requirement back to one year. "I am the fall guy," Handy said. "I am not anti-Mfume." When even your allies hedge their language, you've got troubles.

Bell needs 10 votes on the 19-member council to block Mfume's candidacy. But the math doesn't work. There are 11 council members signed on for the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee, a group of political, community and business leaders urging the NAACP president to run.

They do this for precisely the reason the Bell residency bill falls apart. Mfume is no carpetbagger. Everybody knows him, flaws and all, family secrets and all. He's run for office here before. He's served in the City Council, represented the city in the U.S. Congress, worked here as a civil rights leader, and lived here much of his life.

He's got a history, public and private. Even as he continues his official posture of coyness, denying he's a candidate, Mfume still talks movingly about the city, still talks about forces of history that have put Baltimore at a crossroads, still feels compelled to imagine what he might do to restore his hometown's sense of possibilities.

He makes it sound like poetry. It's one of Mfume's strengths that he turns the business of politics into something inspirational. Lawrence Bell is right about one thing: Political strings were pulled to bring Mfume to the edge of running for mayor. But, so what? To block Mfume, Bell would pull political strings of his own. It's all part of the same game.

Pub Date: 04/29/99

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