Bell enters mayor's race with public safety pledge

Council leader vows tough stance on crime

May 28, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Announcing his bid to become Baltimore's next mayor, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III said yesterday he would implement the "zero tolerance" crime-fighting strategy that has helped other cities across America drastically reduce their murder rates.

Over the past 10 years, Baltimore has recorded more than 300 murders a year, making it one of the most consistently violent cities in the nation.

Surrounded by fellow council members and the leaders of the city's police and fire unions in the City Hall rotunda, Bell said he would reverse the murder trend if elected mayor.

"I believe that all of us are entitled to live and work in a city where we feel safe from crime and bodily harm," Bell said. "We have said it again and again, the No. 1 priority of this city or any city or any government is public safety."

Bell's long-awaited announcement was welcomed by the roomful of supporters, including former council President Mary Pat Clarke. Bell, 37, steps into the race without the political clout that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, carried into their first mayoral bids.

Doubts about Bell and other mayoral candidates led state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House appropriations chairman, to start an unsuccessful movement to draft Bell's second cousin, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, into the race. Rawlings called the mayoral field "frightening." But Bell supporters told city politicians, voters and detractors that the full-time council leader is a tireless campaigner, undefeated in three previous races, including an upset victory in the citywide 1995 council president's race.

"He's everything we say we want," said Clarke, who lost to Schmoke in 1995. "He is a young man who has done his homework, learned the ropes of city government and has always kept his word."

Bell's chief mayoral opponent to date is former East Baltimore Councilman Carl Stokes. Bell defeated Stokes in the 1995 council president's race but may have some catching up to do this time.

Stokes began campaigning in December shortly after Schmoke announced his decision to step down after 12 years. The former city school board member is also expected to pick up significant support from Mfume backers now looking for a candidate.

Bell's supporters have expressed disappointment in his failure to announce his candidacy sooner. They say the West Baltimore native allowed the political vacuum that lured Mfume into the limelight to develop.

"I've learned in the last few months a lesson that you've got to be strong," Bell said, referring to the Mfume groundswell. "Character is not about being on the top of the hill, it's about being down in the valley."

Bell backers pushed him to align himself with Gov. Parris N. Glendening last year when Schmoke announced his support for the governor's Democratic primary challenger, Eileen M. Rehrmann.

Supporters standing next to Bell yesterday said that he must campaign forcefully to show voters he has the energy to lead America's 14th-largest city.

"One of the shots being levied against him is that he is not dynamic enough and not forceful enough," said Stephen G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, a group that has long supported Bell."I hope he starts campaigning; he's got to get going."

Bell did not speak about his ideas to heal a city facing a $153 million budget deficit, a 9 percent unemployment rate -- double the national average -- and where 40 percent of adults fail to earn a high school diploma.

Instead, he focused on his track record.

Despite criticism from Schmoke aides that he fails to understand the city budget, Bell said he led the council to come up with $10.7 million in cuts in 1996 and 1997 to balance the city's spending plan. Bell also boasted of his 12 years of council service and his repeated call for Schmoke's administration to take a tougher crime-fighting stance.

Last year, Bell pushed for a 3-cent property tax cut that saved the average Baltimore homeowner $16, action that the Schmoke administration called irresponsible given the city's fiscal troubles. Bell also has promised to bring more technology to the city, and last year created the council's first Web page and televised hearings over the Internet.

Yesterday, he pledged to continue the technological push.

"We have begun to turn the city around," Bell said. "Now it's time to turn the city on."

After the news conference, Bell declined to discuss whether he would replace Schmoke Cabinet members. Stokes said he would ask for the resignations of all Schmoke department heads and make them reapply for their jobs.

Schmoke supporters, including attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock and Little Italy activist Gia Blatterman, attended the Bell rally that drew a cross section of city residents.

"If you look around here, this is black and white, young and old, male and female," said the Rev. Norman A. Handy Sr., a Southwest Baltimore councilman. "I think he has a better-than-average shot."

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