Character criticisms hide issues in campaign

August 07, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

SUPPORTERS OF MAYORAL candidate and City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III showed up at Martin O'Malley's endorsement rally Thursday. They chanted slogans in support of their candidate, drowned out O'Malley's endorsers and then went home.

The performance went over like either brilliant strategy or flatulence at a funeral, depending on whom you ask.

"I wanted to express my outrage at the way that Bell's people handled the O'Malley endorsement," one caller said. "I think that that stuff is further proof that Bell is not the kind of candidate that the city of Baltimore needs as its mayor. I just thought that was disgraceful."

Weighing in with an opposing view, perhaps not surprisingly, is Julius Henson, the general consultant for Bell's campaign. Henson scoffed at the notion that what happened Thursday was a confrontation between Bell and O'Malley forces, as some in the media have portrayed it.

"It wasn't a confrontation," Henson said yesterday. "It was citizens having a right to exercise their First Amendment rights of assembly and freedom of speech. I saw no problem with that. I think it's a good thing for the city."

Bell's supporters were in the plaza as part of the democratic process, Henson emphasized. They were civil, orderly and nonviolent, Henson continued, and then quietly dispersed when they had made their point. And what was the point, exactly?

"I think the Bell contingent is saying we're going to contest this election day-by-day, every step," Henson said.

The contesting includes, apparently, in-your-face confrontations -- er, pardon -- nonconfrontations with O'Malley and his supporters. Some voters will surely be turned off by the tactics. But Henson believes Thursday's incident will gain voters.

"The calls go both ways," Henson said. "We got calls from people saying, `We're glad you're finally standing up to O'Malley.' " Henson added that Bell's campaign office received no pro-O'Malley calls after the nonconfrontation.

Baltimoreans familiar with Henson's past may charge that he has a history of confrontation, offering as Exhibit 1 the September incident in which he was arrested and charged with second-degree assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct after tangling with two Baltimore police officers at a gas station.

But Henson also has a history of getting the job done. He was Joan Pratt's campaign manager in 1995 when she was elected to citywide office. He was U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' campaign manager in 1996, when Cummings was elected to represent the 7th District, which includes much of Baltimore.

So Henson, in spite of the spate of endorsements pouring in for O'Malley, is a force to be reckoned with in Baltimore. Dismiss him as a rabble-rousing loony if you wish, but he made some good points in his post-nonconfrontation comments.

Henson charged that Baltimore's media, print and electronic, disparaged black candidates long before The Sun's revelations about Bell's finances and Carl Stokes' lack of a degree from Loyola College, and the charge leveled against Mary W. Conaway that she received a college degree on taxpayer time. The media's goal is, Henson suspects, to "deliberately try to depress black voter turnout."

Then there's Baltimore Democratic Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings' dismissal of Bell as a child and a boy.

"O'Malley's younger than Bell," Henson said. "It's funny that once O'Malley entered the race, the age question never came up again."

Then there's the matter of leadership experience. Henson said Bell -- with his years as a city councilman and City Council president -- has the clear edge on O'Malley.

"The usual path to the mayor's office is four to eight years on the City Council, followed by being City Council president," Henson asserted. "O'Malley has not done one single thing that warrants him being mayor. The only thing he has going for him is he's white."

To city voters undecided about which candidate should get their vote Sept. 14, that last quote might sound like a bit of race-baiting on Henson's part. Those of us hoping for an issues-oriented campaign can rest assured that our hopes have taken wing and flown away with the speed of a vampire bat headed for a blood bank. The mayor's race has turned into the campaign of the ad hominem attack, with O'Malley as its target.

For his part, O'Malley had a brief but pithy response to Henson's charge that all he has going for him is that he is white.

"Then why are so many African-Americans supporting me?" O'Malley asked.

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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