Former City Councilman Carl Stokes picked up a key endorsement yesterday from a group of prominent Baltimore ministers, which his supporters see as another sign his campaign is regaining momentum.
The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of more than 200 mostly African-American churches, said Stokes possesses the government experience, "dogged strength" and willingness to work with city groups. It was the third important endorsement Stokes has picked up in as many days.
"This has been a great week for me," Stokes said after gaining the ministers' backing. "As one reporter said to me `Carl, you're smiling again.' "
After picking up support from people who had wanted NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to run, Stokes seemed to fade after it was found that he falsely claimedreceiving a Loyola College degree.
But in recent days, the 49-year-old former city school board member's campaign has come on strong. Stokes picked up the endorsement Wednesday night of the New Democratic Club in the 2nd District, which he represented on the council. On Tuesday, Stokes was endorsed by the elder statesman of the Maryland General Assembly, State Sen. Clarence W. Blount, as well as a group of state delegates from Northwest Baltimore.
Yesterday's endorsement, announced at Metropolitan United Methodist Church near Harlem Park, could mean the most to Stokes. As Baltimore's old-line political machines have lost strength in recent decades, the endorsement of the black ministers' alliance has generally been viewed as the most important in a Baltimore mayoral race.
"We just feel Carl Stokes has the vision of where we are going and where our city should go," said the Rev. Douglas C. Miles, alliance president and pastor of the Koinonia Baptist Church on Greenmount Avenue.
As much as the backing of the ministers boosted Stokes, it came as a blow to one of his main rivals, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.
Bell shrugged off the ministers' choice yesterday, noting that he didn't get their support four years ago when he won the race for city council president.
Six other clergy groups, including several Baptist ministers' organizations, joined the alliance in backing Stokes.
The mayoral race is shaping up to be the most competitive in decades, the first without an incumbent running.
In addition to 16 Democrats, six Republicans and three independent candidates are seeking to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The primary election is Sept. 14.
A poll released Monday by the Annapolis consulting firm Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications Inc. showed Bell with 29 percent of the Democratic vote, Northeast City Councilman Martin O'Malley with 26 percent and Stokes with 20 percent.
With an error rate of plus or minus 4 points, Bell and O'Malley are in a dead heat for the lead. Stokes and his supporters are hoping the string of endorsements this week will bolster his bid.
"This is really what my campaign has been all about," Stokes said to the assembly of more than two dozen clergy members. "Bringing us all together."
No single candidate can claim to have won the endorsement sweepstakes. Stokes is backed by the ministers' group and numerous state legislators; most city labor unions are backing Bell; and O'Malley has gained a critical boost from key state legislative leaders, including House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings.
The appearance Wednesday of Mfume at an O'Malley fund-raiser set Baltimore's political world abuzz with speculation that Mfume is backing the 3rd District councilman.
But Mfume, who will be the host of a WBAL-TV 11 televised debate with leading mayoral candidates on Aug. 30, told reporters his presence at Mick O'Shea's Irish Pub and Restaurant was not an O'Malley endorsement.
The former congressman and city councilman who spurned a draft effort to run for mayor called O'Malley a "good friend" and said he also intends to attend a Stokes event and appeared at a Bell fund- raiser earlier this year.
Stokes' backing by the ministers came immediately after a black organization, Marylanders Organized for Responsibility and Equity (MORE), found Bell, O'Malley and Stokes equally qualified to be mayor.
The group asked all mayoral candidates to fill out a survey of over 30 questions on vision, skills and resources, integrity and agenda.
The responses were reviewed independently by six members who were not told the names of the respondents they studied.
Points were tallied for the answers and MORE Chairman Charles G. Tildon Jr. said the candidates scored so similarly that the group was unable to endorse a single candidate.
"We're disappointed that there is not one clear person standing above the crowd," Tildon said. "We hope the campaign with weeks to come is elevated to one of substance."
Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.