A perilous election for the kingmakers

August 20, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

ONE OR more of them may yet succeed, but the city election of 1999 has been a perilous thing for kingmakers.

At least four of the city's well-known political leaders -- two elected officials, two paid advisers -- have asserted the right and responsibility to anoint the candidate they find best able to direct city affairs.

Their efforts have been extraordinarily public in contrast with the king-making cabals and backroom deliberations of Baltimore under the big Democratic bosses. Yet, the kingmaker's enterprise is inherently arrogant, suggesting that the democratic process needs intervention by the self-appointed.

Arrogance to some is responsible leadership for others.

Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings was the first to seize this role. Former mayor and now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer got into the game, too, as did the professionals, Larry S. Gibson and Julius Henson.

They are all filling a vacuum left by the bosses who handled this chore efficiently and with an eye often to quality as well as to fealty. The vacuum was widened when this year's field had no prohibitive front-runner even as the city faces crushing problems.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has so far remained neutral. He seems to have none of the departing executive's desire to pick a successor, someone who might pursue his vision, maintain his priorities -- as if they were not all that important to him.

The mayor's own kingmaker, Mr. Gibson, has played an equally uninvolved part in the proceedings for a different reason: He had no candidate. Now, though, he hopes to influence the thinking of city voters as the campaign enters its decisive last stages. A bit of indirect or remote king-making, no doubt.

Mr. Gibson says African-American voters may coalesce around the strongest black candidate -- particularly if they think the white candidate is getting a free ride from the media. If they don't do that in the Democratic primary, he may take king-making to the next level, abandoning the Democratic nominee to support the man he hopes will win the Republican primary, businessman and teacher Carl Adair, who is black. Mr. Gibson was distributing Mr. Adair's campaign literature at a business organization's endorsement meeting earlier this week.

His peripheral role in this year's race was forced on him in part because he has clashed with another of the kingmakers, Mr. Henson, a man who had been spoiling for a head-on collision with the Schmoke-Gibson team and who seemed to regret losing an opportunity to put them into forced retirement.

Mr. Gibson says he offered advice to Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. But Mr. Bell had hired Mr. Henson -- and then fired him after a Henson-staged demonstration against candidate Martin O'Malley. The Henson troops disrupted an O'Malley press conference, triggering instead a shower of denunciation on Mr. Bell. Mr. Henson remains well-positioned. His candidates include city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt -- a potential mayoral candidate down the road -- and Frank M. Conaway, the Circuit Court clerk, who is running for council president. Should Mr. Conaway slip through a crowded field and win, Mr. Henson's credentials would lengthen.

With kingmakers Gibson and Henson a bit wounded, though, the mantle falls to Mr. Rawlings, who outflanked them both -- not once but possibly twice. The West Baltimore Democrat has been one of the city's most skilled political leaders, a man who has found a way to promote his own political future and the city's simultaneously. Angling to become speaker of the House of Delegates, Mr. Rawlings has drawn praise of white and suburban legislators by insisting on accountability in Baltimore's school system, daring to withhold money when the city failed to keep its promises.

His king-making exploits this year would have impressed some of the city's most famous bosses. He tried to recruit former congressman Kweisi Mfume to run for mayor though Mr. Mfume did not then live in the city. Mr. Mfume coyly encouraged Mr. Rawlings who managed to persuade the state assembly to rewrite local law to allow an Mfume candidacy. But then the inherent dangers of king-making became manifest: Mr. Mfume turned away.

Having called the field of candidates without Mr. Mfume "frightening," Mr. Rawlings was suddenly without a head to crown. He turned to Mr. O'Malley. And he has company: Comptroller Schaefer, the four-term mayor, who had also wanted Mr. Mfume, now also sides with Mr. O'Malley.

Mr. Rawlings has been criticized by some for interfering at all, by others for treason, abandoning the black contenders. Mr. Rawlings, who is African-American, says he is merely standing with the candidate he thinks is best qualified.

Some say his exertions will result in low voter turnout: calling the field "frightening" will be confusing and discouraging to the electorate. If that is so it could have the somewhat perverse effect of helping his current candidate. Mr. O'Malley has made a career of organizing political campaigns: His voters will turn out.

It is also possible, though, that the clamor and controversy provoked by the kingmakers has raised the race to a level of importance and urgency it would not have had otherwise. That much is good, energizing and alerting the kingmakers that count ultimately: the voters.

C. Fraser Smith is a Sun editorial writer.

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