Sudden opening in field has contenders jockeying

Early leaders include Stokes, Bell

filing deadline 6 weeks off

May 25, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume's decision not to join Baltimore's mayoral race has left a wide-open field, with nearly 10 candidates already campaigning or considering a run for the city's top job.

Although there does not appear to be a front-runner without Mfume -- who was hailed as a shoo-in, if he ran -- the chief beneficiary of the NAACP leader's decision was clearly Carl Stokes, the former City Council member and former school board director who announced in December.

As news of Mfume's decision raced through the city yesterday, key members of the committee of Baltimore political and business leaders formed to draft him said they were now leaning toward Stokes -- rather than the man who had been viewed as Mfume's most serious rival, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

The draft-Mfume committee is "in effect setting up a secondary strategy," said Raymond V. Haysbert, former owner of Parks Sausage Co.

"If Mfume is not available," he said, "we have to find the next qualified person. From those whom I've talked with today, it is gravitating toward Stokes."

Among the other declared or undeclared candidates, Bell remains the most formidable. He is best known by virtue of his citywide office and the best financed. Supporters claim he has raised about $400,000.

"Lawrence Bell will begin to articulate his vision of Baltimore over the next campaign dates," said Julius Henson, general consultant to the Bell campaign. "I predict that this race will be wrapped up in about four weeks."

Bell has neither officially announced his candidacy nor registered as a candidate with the city Board of Supervisors of Elections. Stokes and six others have.

They include Mary W. Conaway, a Democrat and city register of wills; A. Robert Kaufman, a Democrat and social activist; and community activists Phillip A. Brown Jr., a Democrat, William E. Roberts Sr., a Democrat, Roberto Marsili, a Republican, and Arthur W. Cuffie Jr., a Republican.

Besides Bell, the best-known unannounced candidate is Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore state's attorney, who has said she would join the mayor's race if Mfume didn't run.

Because election of the city state's attorney is held the year before municipal races, Jessamy can run without losing her post.

Yesterday, Jessamy said she would make an announcement about her political future shortly.

More than a month remains before the July 6 filing deadline, but if another major candidate enters the race -- Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former mayor and governor, has publicly toyed with the idea -- it will be a surprise.

"Hopefully, now the media will focus on the issues," Stokes said. "We're going to run an issues-oriented campaign. I'm just going to continue to lead the city with integrity and honesty, after I'm elected mayor."

Stokes regains credibility

Stokes had been written off as a loser because of his failed campaigns for council president in 1995 and for a General Assembly seat in 1994, but his persistent efforts at fund raising and campaigning since he announced his candidacy in December have given him credibility.

Among those taking another look is powerful West Baltimore state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who suggested that he might rally support for Stokes despite his comments that the field of candidates, including Stokes, was "frightening to people."

"The field hasn't changed," Rawlings said. "Now you have to go and rehabilitate somebody."

Another prominent Mfume supporter, state Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, who represents parts of North and Northwest Baltimore, said she, too, is looking favorably at Stokes.

"A person who has gained a tremendous amount of credibility in my eyes is Carl Stokes," McIntosh said.

Schools, crime, drugs

Stokes is promising $25 million more in school funding, a three-point plan to reduce homicides by 50 percent in his first term, drug treatment on demand and more recreation centers for youth.

He has hired a top Democratic political consulting firm, Squier Knapp and Dunn, which has produced and aired one radio ad for Stokes.

The Squier firm did media work for President Clinton in 1996 and is handling Vice President Al Gore's campaign now.

"We're excited about it," said Jay Rouse, a partner in the firm. "Carl's a great candidate."

Though Bell has not publicly detailed his campaign platform, he too has targeted crime as an issue and has been one of the City Council's leading critics of the administration's inability to check Baltimore's homicide rate.

He has spent much time with community groups here and has visited such cities as Atlanta to see how they have handled urban crime, economic development and other issues.

Bell's aides said yesterday that his campaign will shift into high gear once the city budget is completed next month.

"Lawrence Bell is currently wrestling with the budget," Henson said. "Lawrence Bell is working. Carl Stokes is on the sidelines."

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