Bell-O'Malley bond appears to weaken

City councilmen deny recent differences are signs of rift

June 03, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, City Councilmen Lawrence A. Bell III and Martin O'Malley shackled their political futures together, bonding as tag-team rebels against the Schmoke administration.

Whether challenging pugnacious city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III or Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, the two young politicians rose to the forefront of their 19-member council class.

They earned the nickname "Batman and Robin" for urging the city to adopt tougher crime-fighting strategies and galvanized their defiant council dominance by working together four years ago to ensure an upset victory for Bell in the race for council president.

Yet last week, when the 37-year-old Bell announced his bid to become mayor, one man was conspicuously absent: O'Malley.

Council observers viewed O'Malley's absence as proof of the depth of differences between the two men over political strategy.

With Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ready to step down in December, the Bell-O'Malley estrangement surfaces as their long-awaited hope of standing atop Baltimore's political hill sits within their grasp. Supporters, however, fear that the ambitious young politicians appear increasingly willing to push each other off the top.

"It has disappointed me," said Stephen G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association union. "But it's a reality; those two are feuding right now."

O'Malley, a Northeast Baltimore councilman and attorney who has been mentioned as a strong contender to replace Bell as council president, said he was scheduled to represent a client in court when Bell made his mayoral announcement Friday.

Bell and his campaign shrugged off suggestions of a rift.

O'Malley has been less than secretive about his frustration with Bell's campaign strategy, including disappointment over Bell's silence during the recent turmoil in the city's court system.

The O'Malley-Bell alliance was built on trying to persuade Schmoke to adopt the "zero tolerance" crime strategy used by cities such as New York, where homicide rates plummeted.

The strategy involves prosecuting minor crimes with the goal of preventing more serious offenses and includes having city prosecutors file charges against police suspects.

In November, two armed robbery and carjacking suspects were freed after prosecutors took too long to take them to trial. Christopher Wills and Kevin Cox have since pleaded guilty in federal court and are awaiting sentencing.

Jessamy criticized

O'Malley immediately criticized State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for her unwillingness to assume the charging function. He and Bell have been pushing the move for three years in order to weed out weak police cases and reduce the court backlog. O'Malley saw an opening to get at least one part of the plan implemented. Bell, however, remained silent.

Most recently, Bell has been criticized by some council colleagues for casting the critical April vote that allowed a Northeast Baltimore rubble crushing operation by Phipps Construction Contractors Inc. Phipps, a Schmoke campaign supporter, was represented by Baltimore attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, a longtime Schmoke administration ally and fund-raiser who now serves on the Bell campaign finance team.

O'Malley declined to talk about any strained relationship with the council president or whether he worries that Bell might be joining forces with people the two men built their council reputations opposing.

`My friend'

"Lawrence Bell is my friend," O'Malley said. "And he could be a great mayor."

Adding to the awkwardness between the two is state Sen. Joan Carter Conway's formation of an exploratory committee for a possible mayoral bid.

Over the weekend, O'Malley and Conway conducted phone polling to measure their election chances. O'Malley, however, warned against reading it as a possible Conway-O'Malley ticket for mayor and council president.

Council observers such as Fugate see O'Malley struggling to find his spot in the post-Schmoke government. Because about 60 percent of Baltimore's voters are black, O'Malley, who is white, could have difficulty winning a citywide race, Fugate said, making him less of a draw on a mayoral ticket.

"I suspect Lawrence is not going to be too quick to ally himself," Fugate said. "And it's a fact of city politics; there is that racial divide."

Others, including West Baltimore Councilman Sheila Dixon, do not understand Bell's isolation of O'Malley.

`Beyond color'

"We need to get beyond color and deal with the substance of the person," said Dixon, who is considering a council president bid. "Most of the things that Lawrence has accomplished over the last four years has been [because of] O'Malley."

Although O'Malley would not discuss any possible fallout with his political pal, he gave a glimpse into the disappointment with a rhetorical foray about Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins.

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