Baltimore deserves better than antics of Bell's bullies on the campaign trail

August 08, 1999|By Michael Olesker

IN PURSUIT OF the mayoralty of Baltimore, in alleged pursuit of what he once called a more civilized, less racially divisive campaign than four years ago, Lawrence Bell allowed his supporters to commit an act of political vandalism last week.

They ought to be ashamed of themselves, all of them. For there was Del. Howard P. Rawlings Thursday morning, trying to take part in the democratic process by announcing his support of a candidate not named Lawrence Bell, and he could not raise his voice loud enough to be heard 10 feet away.

"We want Bell," about 50 Bell supporters chanted. In common street parlance, they got in Rawlings' face, separated only by a thin line of TV cameras.

"We are not here to support the best black candidate," Rawlings said.

"We want Bell," the Bell supporters shouted over him.

"We are not here to support the white candidate," Rawlings said.

"We want Bell," the Bell supporters shouted again, while one of their leaders exhorted them, "Pump it up."

"We are here to support the best candidate for mayor of our city, and that person is Martin O'Malley," said Rawlings.

Now I don't say Rawlings is right in his assessment, and I don't say he's wrong. A campaign is a time of constant evaluation for all citizens. But anybody who was there on the steps of the War Memorial Plaza Thursday and saw this display of thuggery orchestrated by the Lawrence Bell campaign has to feel a sense of revulsion and embarrassment for the political incivility in this city.

"A despicable display," Rawlings said afterward, "and a chance for citizens to see a sense of values. Lawrence Bell is a child. He talks like a child, acts like a child and thinks like a child. And he surrounds himself with people who don't respect the basic tenets of society.

"This," Rawlings said, gesturing toward one Bell organizer, "is Julius Henson's signature campaign style -- divisive, disruptive and confrontational. They don't have respect for simple civil discourse."

Julius Henson is one of Bell's trouble-shooters. He's the one who called Kweisi Mfume several months back, when the NAACP leader was still thinking about entering the mayoral race, and told him he was "here to [bleep] you. It's nothing personal, it's just what Bell hired me to do" -- and then bragged about it afterward.

Confronted Thursday about organizing the War Memorial demonstration, Henson snapped, "You got a problem with people expressing their views?"

He knows better. This wasn't about expressing views, it was about suppressing them. The chant, "We want Bell," was an effort to bully anyone who doesn't support him.

Also, more pointedly, it was an attempt to hold back the future -- a future that, as Rawlings said, involves "a new generation of white politicians."

It involves black politicians, too. It is mayoral contenders such as O'Malley, Carl Stokes and others who understand that drawing racial lines for their own sake is an act of community self-destruction.

In the crowd Thursday was Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who also crossed racial lines to endorse O'Malley.

"He brought me to the political table," Conway said. She was talking about O'Malley's efforts to help her win a 3rd District councilmanic seat that had historically been the preserve of white men.

"He's always been for diversity," Conway said. "He's a good individual who's committed to the cause. Listen, the city's drowning. When you're drowning, and somebody puts out a hand to pull you out, you don't say, `Go away, I'm waiting for a black hand.'

"Let me tell you something," Conway said. "Back in May, O'Malley said to me, `Conway, you need to run for mayor.' I said, `I don't want to.' He said, `Think about it. I won't run against you. But if you don't run, I have to come in.' I said, `They'll call you racist if you do.' "

And some have. The word has been tossed around because it's what we do in America. And it's killed all meaning for the word because it's applied so recklessly.

As for cheap accusations, let's get one more out of the way: this business of Bell condemning O'Malley for making part of his living as a criminal defense attorney while saying he'll get tough on crime.

Does no one around here remember Milton Allen? He spent his career as a criminal defense attorney -- and then was elected state's attorney of Baltimore. Was that a conflict? Allen, this city's first black state's attorney, did honorable work on both sides of the courtroom.

It's the system of law in this country: Everyone's entitled to a defense in court. It doesn't mean defense lawyers commit criminal acts.

In politics, too, everybody's supposed to get a fair chance to talk. That's the pity of last week's shouting down by Bell's people. It was an attempt to subvert the democratic process.

Pete Rawlings deserves better, and so does the city of Baltimore. And Lawrence Bell, who has always previously conducted himself like a gentleman, ought to know better. He hurt himself a lot.

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