Benton uses savvy in Mfume draft bid

Strategist helped Washington mayor

May 17, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

She calculates every move with the precision of a physicist. No newspaper or radio advertisements before their time. Political endorsements are strategically planned with high-profile personalities and plenty of media attention.

Politics is, after all, a science.

To many politicians in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Cheryl A. Benton's political laboratory ranks among the area's best for building campaigns -- with or without a candidate.

Benton is the campaign manager for the effort to draft Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for Baltimore's mayoral race, and is being promoted as the one who will likely lead the civil rights leader's campaign for office if he decides to run.

If the draft effort successfully attracts Mfume into the race, much of the credit is likely to go to the draft effort's campaign manager, which is why the position is so important to this race.

"You need someone who is a professional political hack," Benton said. "I guess that's what you would call me."

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who initiated the Mfume draft movement, tapped Benton several months ago after she successfully recruited and guided Mayor Anthony A. Williams into office in Washington.

"In Baltimore, the field [of political strategists] is essentially Larry Gibson, Julius Henson and Cheryl Benton," Rawlings said. Gibson, who ran Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's campaigns, suffered a setback in the short-lived gubernatorial bid of former Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

As for Henson, Rawlings said, "It's not clear that he has the expertise of being strategic manager of a major campaign."

Henson, who is working as a consultant for City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's mayoral bid, calls Rawlings' comments political rhetoric lacking substance.

He points to his role in the successful congressional campaigns of Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County and the campaigns for Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway.

"Rawlings is entitled to his opinion," Henson said. "I disagree with that."

Although Benton has led successful campaigns for Williams in Washington and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Henson points out that she led former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's unsuccessful campaign against Schmoke in 1995 and a fleeting gubernatorial bid by former Washington Redskin Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. last year.

"If Lawrence Bell stays in this race, and it's Bell against Mfume, Mfume knows he's in trouble," Henson said. "Whether Mfume gets in the race or not, this isn't over."

Benton has managed to gain strong support for the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee. If that support holds, Mfume will have a strong following going into the election.

Benton bought advertisements in the Afro-American and The Sun, showing support of 250 political, business and community leaders, including the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Reid, Benton's pastor, said he believes Benton is the ideal person to lead the Mfume draft effort.

"I think that she is one of the most intelligent persons I know," Reid said. "She is very well-regarded as a political operative nationally and locally."

In addition to the newspaper ads, Benton organized an Mfume Web site, radio spots, a historic endorsement by three former Baltimore mayors and a rally with all the fanfare of political campaigns.

"She has a lot of energy," said Curran, the state's attorney general. "She knows how to look at what are the strengths of the candidate and build on that."

A 55-year-old native of Pittsburgh, Benton began her activism about a decade ago in Houston, where she ran the Houston Area Women's Center. She led political movements against domestic violence and began working with City Council candidates who helped combat domestic abuse.

In every step she takes -- political or otherwise -- Benton said she draws on her faith to guide her.

"Every day I get up and ask the Lord to let me be in the center of his will," Benton said. She said she believes God leads her to have an impact in the political arena.

She came to Baltimore in 1994 to run Curran's campaign, and later joined with Clarke, Schoenke and Williams.

But Benton's mother said her political flair began during her childhood, with a unique ability to connect with people.

"She always sort of leaned that way," said her mother, Clara Benton. "Growing up, she was always involved in community things. She's always been very popular and a well-rounded person."

To many, Benton can be kind enough. But she also has her tough side, which helps her navigate muddy political waters.

Rawlings said he recalls when he met Benton in 1994, while she was working on the Curran campaign. He said the Curran campaign promised financial support for other Democratic teams, and Benton insisted on a lower amount than the candidate had offered.

"This very brash woman came to me and said, `Here's what you're getting,' " Rawlings said. We had agreed on a certain amount. She had cut that in half."

Clara Benton said her father and brother were perhaps the inspiration for her daughter's political bent because of their involvement in voter registrations and civil rights.

The success of Cheryl Benton's efforts will be tested when Mfume makes his decision public.

"This is good stuff," Benton said. "We've been loud. We've been visible. The onus now is really on Kweisi."

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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