Bell fires aide who organized rally disruption

Mayoral front-runner says he did not OK consultant's tactics

Stokes' manager quits

August 10, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III fired his chief mayoral campaign consultant yesterday, four days after Bell supporters disrupted an event being held by mayoral rival and fellow Councilman Martin O'Malley.

Bell said he never approved the disruption, organized by Julius Henson, and was embarrassed by the incident. "The bottom line is that he was not authorized to speak for the campaign," Bell said yesterday.

The change in the upper levels of the Bell campaign came on the same day that mayoral rival Carl F. Stokes lost his campaign manager, and a new voter poll showed Bell's support slipping.

Even some of Bell's closest allies criticized the use of supporters to shout down O'Malley backers Thursday as they tried to speak at the War Memorial.

Henson, who joined the Bell campaign in February, said yesterday that he had no hard feelings. "He has the right to replace anyone on the campaign, including the general consultant," Henson said, adding that he did not know the reason for his ouster. "I only have one regret about the whole campaign: that we have not wrapped this race up in a definitive manner."

Meanwhile, Cheryl Benton, who helped Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams win election last year, said that she was stepping down from the Stokes campaign. "I have personal family stuff going on," she said yesterday. "I essentially don't have any official role in the campaign."

Benton said she plans to continue advising the Stokes campaign but will no longer play a full-time role.

She joined the Stokes campaign as manager in June after helping to organize the unsuccessful bid to recruit NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to run for mayor.

Benton's withdrawal comes as reports continue to surface that Stokes is having trouble raising money in the weeks leading to the Sept. 14 primary. Stokes -- the first major contender to enter the race after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would step down in December -- has been damaged by credibility problems, including false claims in his campaign literature that he had graduated from college.

But Benton maintains that Stokes' campaign is running strong, and the former councilman is set to pick up a key endorsement today from state Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Senate's majority leader.

Blount represents the 41st District, a powerful Northwest Baltimore voting bloc that will play a major role in determining the city's next mayor. Blount's endorsement is expected to help strengthen Stokes in West Baltimore, a Bell stronghold.

Several legislators are expected to join Blount in his endorsement, including Dels. Lisa A. Gladden, Nathaniel T. Oaks and Wendell F. Phillips, all of Blount's 41st District.

Blount is expected to help Stokes counter the gains O'Malley made last week with endorsements from state Del. Howard P. Rawlings and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, whose districts include Northwest Baltimore.

Also today, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of 200 mostly African-American churches, is expected to announce its endorsement for mayor.

The developments in the rapidly changing mayoral contest came as an Annapolis political consulting company, Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc., released its second poll of the campaign season showing front-runner Bell's support faltering.

The phone survey of 634 likely city voters conducted over the weekend shows Bell's support at 29 percent. But his lead of 16 percentage points two months ago has dwindled to a three-point advantage. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points, making the race too close to call.

O'Malley, who represents a section of Northeast Baltimore, has vaulted into second place, according to the poll, with 26 percent of the respondents saying they would support him. Stokes took 20 percent, up three percentage points since June when he was second to Bell in the poll.

"While he continues to hold a lead and may continue to hold an advantage over the balance of the campaign, Bell's fortunes have changed markedly since our last survey," said Carol Arscott. "It's not possible at this point to predict if Bell has hit bottom or whether his `fall from grace' [in the poll] will continue to push his numbers down."

Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway's support in the poll remained at 4 percent, and the remaining 22 candidates in the race are at a combined 3 percent. Eighteen percent of the respondents -- representing nearly one of every five voters -- were undecided.

The events leading to Henson's firing began Thursday as O'Malley held a small endorsement ceremony. A slightly larger group of about 50 Bell supporters confronted O'Malley supporters in front of City Hall, in the City Hall rotunda and finally on the War Memorial steps.

Henson said of his rally, "I'm not going to let them [O'Malley supporters] come down here and have their day."

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