Bell's devotion to politics likened to Schaefer's

June 01, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Brace yourselves: Lawrence Bell is about to be marketed as the second coming of that secular urban saint, William Donald Schaefer.

Not that Schaefer's endorsed Bell's campaign for mayor -- or anybody else's. But, in the name of political shorthand, Schaefer's name is being evoked to explain Bell's singular devotion to politics, and to the city, and to a lifestyle of such blissful fulfillment attained by the cleaning of the tattered alley, the signing of the zoning ordinance, and the heroic installation of the sewer system that it needs no room for mere private pleasures.

"Think about it," Mary Pat Clarke was saying Sunday evening, as she stepped from dinner at Luigi Petti's Restaurant in Little Italy. Like a machine gun, she ran down comparisons: Each man came up through the City Council; each is a bachelor who has made the city his mistress; each is tied to his family ("Schaefer lived with his mother, and Lawrence lives in an apartment over his father's dental office"); and each man is shy to the occasional point of incoherence when speaking in public.

"Remember Schaefer when he started?" Clarke said. "It was painful, wasn't it? We all thought, `How is this man going to make it?' Well, Lawrence is the same way, but he'll grow the way Schaefer did."

"And this is the way Bell's going to be marketed?" Clarke was asked.

"Yes," she said. "Because it's true."

She has an interesting perspective. She was a City Council member when Schaefer was mayor and was council president when Bell's council career was beginning. Four years ago, when Bell was winning election as council president, Clarke was losing her bid for mayor to Kurt L. Schmoke.

Thursday, when Bell formally announced his bid to become mayor, Clarke stood by his side in the City Hall rotunda. She was beaming. When Mary Pat Clarke beams, it is like a flash bulb in a mine shaft.

"Lawrence is very focused and steady," she said moments later as she watched Bell march off to file formal application papers. "Whatever pressure he was under, you could count on his word. He's an honorable young man who lives this job."

In fact, part of the concern about Bell is that word: "young." Clarke's comparison to Schaefer is the flip side of concerns that Bell's singular political focus has insulated him from the messiness of ordinary life outside City Hall -- a charge Schaefer, too, sometimes heard in his earliest days.

But, for all the Schaefer comparisons, he was near the half-century mark when he first ran for mayor. Bell, 37, is youthful enough that his campaign announcement last week was attended by his parents and two of his grandparents. That's a personal blessing but a mixed political message, which the candidate addressed in the opening lines of his speech.

"It makes you look young," he said, chuckling as he glanced quite lovingly toward his two grandmothers. "You gotta watch that, because you want to be mayor."

"The divine will of God," said Bell's maternal grandmother, Corinna Willis. "We prayed for him, and here he is. All those nights reading Bible stories to him, and this is what we have. A young man with compassion and leadership. I'm just as proud as could be."

Nearby stood the candidate's mother, Elinor Bell, bursting with pride.

"He was always interested in politics," she said. "Even as a young boy, he'd listen to the news. He'd read Time and Newsweek. He'd talk politics. He was the only kid I knew who read the business page instead of the sports page. Yes, as a child and as a teen-ager. Then, when he ran for president of the Black Student Union at the University of Maryland, he'd call home and say, `I think I've got the votes lined up.'

"I still say to him, `Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to push yourself? You know how people say mean things about politicians.' But he says this is his life, this is what he wants to do."

Bell's campaign-opening speech was OK. Its intent wasn't to parse every nuance of policy; it was merely to get public attention that he was officially kicking into gear. But one moment stood out.

"It's not a glamorous job," the candidate said. "It's not fun and games. We're out there seven days a week. Daytime, nighttime. It's a sacrifice. But it's a life we have chosen."

Such words, such sentiments, such a lifestyle, could describe William Donald Schaefer. The two men are not precisely cut from the same cloth. But, for Bell supporters, it's a comparison they like, and we're likely to hear more of it.

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