Mayoral candidates getting testy as primary nears

August 22, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NOW THE campaign for mayor of Baltimore approaches bare-knuckle time. Twice in the past two weeks, Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell, brought together by a minister, met with about 10 close advisers, and Stokes told Bell he should drop out of the race. The first meeting was polite; the second, not quite.

One person who was there described an uncertain Bell softly declining to withdraw at the first meeting, and then, at the second meeting, angrily pointing to his healthier campaign finances and the most recently published poll numbers as arguments that it was crazy to suggest that he quit.

Stokes, sources say, pointed to the 13-point drop in Bell's poll numbers in the past two months -- a 16-point lead shrunk to three points -- and the damage inflicted by the dreadful confrontation of Bell's troops with Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, when he tried to endorse Martin O'Malley two weeks ago and was shouted down, and the pitiful Bell explanation afterward that he hadn't known such tactics were to be employed that day.

Now Stokes has more arguments on his behalf. In the past week, he's been endorsed by this newspaper's editorial board, by the Afro-American editorial board and by the Interdenom- inational Ministerial Alliance. Meanwhile, Martin O'Malley was endorsed by William Donald Schaefer, whose stamp of approval sends signals not only to voters but to heavy financial hitters.

And Bell, hoping last week for a politician's endorsement that did not arrive, has puzzled some reporters by making himself unavailable for interviews, by failing to show up for events such as last Sunday's radio broadcast debate with Stokes and O'Malley, and by filing an incomplete campaign finance report and blaming it on a "computer glitch."

Several telephone calls to Bell at his campaign and City Hall offices on Friday were not returned.

By some measures, Bell's campaign rolls along. With money in the bank, he started advertising on television last week. The spots show Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, walking a city street in uniform and describing Bell as a dependable guy.

In a city where eight people were killed in a three-day period last week, and 41 people were shot but not killed the previous week, the high-profile backing of a police officer in his uniform carries obvious psychological weight. Bell's campaign intends to run the spot until primary election day.

O'Malley's campaign has reserved TV time for the final two weeks of the campaign but may begin earlier if, as expected, the Schaefer endorsement helps bring in new money.

Stokes, despite last week's endorsements, still trails his chief contenders in available funds. Four years ago, when he ran for council president, he ran out of money late in the campaign and finished badly. This summer, he has focused on walks through neighborhoods and meetings with community and religious groups.

Two days ago, Stokes was interviewed by former attorney and civic activist Leonard Kerpelman, a free-lance cable television producer, at Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point. The potential size of such a TV audience is considerably smaller than for Bell's commercials, which are airing on the local network affiliates. And the environment wasn't exactly controlled.

Among those "ordinary citizens" questioning Stokes at the Kerpelman taping was Roberto Marsili. He is a Republican candidate for mayor. Then someone thrust an 18-month old child onto Stokes' lap.

"How you doing, young man?" Stokes said. The child looked a little perplexed. Stokes smiled; the baby pouted for a moment. "I know I'm supposed to kiss babies," Stokes said, laughing. Then, holding the child, he told him, "I don't think I'm gonna keep the job long enough for you to vote for me."

Such moments have their spontaneous charm, though they don't reach the audience of a single 30-second TV spot. Who knows which counts more, paid commercials or face-to-face contact?

The other day, Martin O'Malley stood outside the Fresh Fields food store off Falls Road. Scores of shoppers seemed delighted to see him. O'Malley had a 38-page position paper on crime for people to read. Who knows if position papers mean as much as simple human contact?

As the city heads into the final three weeks before primary election day, all three leading contenders have picked up the pace: on the television screen, in position papers and simple handshakes, and in private meetings where Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell did not exchange best wishes.

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