With five weeks to go, mayor's race a tossup

Changing fortunes: Stokes manages to restart campaign as Bell and O'Malley fight for lead in polls.

August 11, 1999

IF THE primary were held today, the mayor's job would be a tossup among Martin O'Malley, Carl Stokes and Lawrence A. Bell III. But in the five weeks remaining before the Sept. 14 primary, anything could happen.

State Sen. Clarence W. Blount's long-delayed endorsement yesterday put Carl Stokes firmly back in the mayor's race. The former city councilman and school board member now appears to have halted the erosion of support and financial backing that followed disclosures that he had lied about graduating from college. Against this background, the departure of campaign manager Cheryl Benson is a minor setback.

The dismissal of Julius Henson, Mr. Bell's abrasive nuts-and-bolts political consultant, is a far more serious matter. He was let go because an organized group of Bell workers interrupted an O'Malley campaign event.

The tactic backfired, forcing the candidate himself to disavow the disturbance. Mr. Henson may be the fall guy, but he did not act alone. So many other key Bell operatives participated in the tumult that Mr. Bell had to know about it.

The lingering controversy could not come at a worse time for the City Council president. A new poll suggests he has squandered his commanding early lead through lackluster campaigning and controversy about his personal finances.

The adversities of Mr. Bell and Mr. Stokes have been a boon for Mr. O'Malley, whose late-starting campaign has so far been able to avoid controversy. Some kingmakers have virtually conceded the Democratic nomination to him.

Among them seems to be Larry Gibson, the University of Maryland law professor who ran Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's campaigns. He and some of his Democratic associates participated in a meeting last week to discuss raising $125,000 to help Carl Adair, a black candidate, win the Republican mayoral primary. Mr. Adair could be their candidate in November should Mr. O'Malley, who is white, win the Democratic primary.

The political ups and downs have diverted attention from the issues the candidates have raised at recent public forums. Yet discernible differences exist among the leading candidates' approaches and priorities. Their qualifications also vary greatly, as can be seen from material on their web sites: www.bellformayor.com; www.carlstokes.com and www.omalleyformayor.org.

It has been heartening that people of all backgrounds are involved in these campaigns. It's also a good thing that the idea that The Sun or some sinister force is manipulating the campaign has subsided.

Race may still surface as a divisive issue, though. At a Stokes event yesterday, state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden said that "fairness" and "equity" demanded that after 189 years of white mayors, African-Americans continue their 13-year control over City Hall.

No one should pretend race isn't an issue. In fact, it's an obsession among Baltimoreans.

The next mayor, however, should not be elected on the basis of ethnicity. Voters should be able to make that choice on the merits, if they care to study the candidates and their stands.

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