Taking It to the Street

Lawrence A. Bell III brings his message to the people, letting no distractions keep him from embracing potential voters.

August 24, 1999|By SUN STAFF

Let's get this moving again.

Lawrence A. Bell III -- LAB, as he's known on his own campaign schedule -- is working Northeast Market on a Saturday morning, shaking hands and repeating, almost mantra-like, "Need your help. Sure need your help. Tell your friends. I'd appreciate your help."

His supporters swarm around him, easily identified by the white "Team Bell" T-shirts and, for a lucky few, the white Bell polo shirts. When Bell takes too much time with a voter, or gets bogged down in a constituent's conversation, one of the white-shirted people will prod him along, or become a literal handler, grabbing him under his arm and pushing him forward.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Today section incorrectly described an exchange between City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and Councilwoman Agnes Welch at the Stone Soul Picnic Saturday in Druid Hill Park. The article reported that Welch had avoided embracing Bell, who was visiting the park as part of his campaign for mayor. In fact, Welch did embrace Bell. The Sun regrets the error.

"We've got to keep him moving," campaign aide Peter Dolkart says repeatedly. "Let's get this moving again." A full day is planned, much of it just like this: moving through crowds, shaking hands, visiting barber shops and beauty salons, going door to door. "Need your help. Sure need your help. Tell your friends. Appreciate your help."

Bell has always run his campaigns on this grassroots level, a style initially born out of necessity. When he scored his surprise victory for the District 4 council seat in 1987, he had only $10,000. He didn't have that much more when he ran for re-election in 1991, and he also was considered the underdog when he went after the City Council presidency in 1995. Three elections, three victories -- and not a one with a major media endorsement, he mentions today. Just in case you were wondering.

This time, however, Bell wasn't supposed to be an underdog. But a few campaign missteps -- embarrassing revelations about his personal finances, a disastrous protest at a rival's rally -- have dogged him this summer. Polls show it's a three-man race in the Democratic primary -- Bell, City Councilman Martin J. O'Malley and former City Councilman Carl Stokes -- and few political handicappers are ready to predict the win, place and show.

But Bell is the best-financed candidate to date, having raised a quarter of a million more than his next-closest competitor and one-time ally, O'Malley -- although the gap between what's on hand is much narrower.

In fact, the Bell campaign has spent as much clothing the candidate at Saks Fifth Avenue, $4,300, as another Democrat, A. Robert Kaufman, has raised for his entire campaign.

The money means he has already begun television and radio advertising, always an advantage. Still, Bell walks the streets, his campaign aides say, going out every night there isn't a mayoral forum. What do you call such a campaign? "A well-financed grassroots campaign," suggests aide Bill Henry.

Here in the market, Bell has taken off his suit jacket, a khaki DKNY, exposing a pale blue shirt that seems voluminous on his slight frame, puffing up in back almost like a sail.

"They say I'm too skinny to be mayor," jokes Bell, 37, who forgets to eat when he's campaigning, who will not stop to consume more than a bottle of iced tea for the next eight hours. "Would you believe I used to weigh 220 pounds?"

"I support you 100 percent," a woman in the market calls out.

Bell stops and begins a little speech that will prove to be the day's theme. Did you know, he asks this supporter, that Clarence "Du" Burns and I are the only two black men elected city council president? Did you know that, before Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke challenged Burns in the 1987 mayor's race, the city council presidency was considered a training ground for the city's mayors?

"Every mayor in my generation was once city council president," he tells the woman, even as a campaign aide gently pushes him along, hand hooked in Bell's armpit. "You hear me now?"

Yes, it's true: William Donald Schaefer, Du Burns and Tommy D'Alesandro III were city council presidents first, mayors second. But other city council presidents found the office was no guarantee of the mayorship. Mary Pat Clarke, who's working on Bell's campaign, is just one example.

And Schmoke, the first elected black mayor in Baltimore, was state's attorney before he won the office. So the precedent does not carry the historic weight of, say, winning the New Hampshire primary.

No matter. Throughout the day, the theme will grow and expand, until it is promulgated almost as if it were Bell's birthright. City council presidents grow up to be mayor. He is only the second black city council president in the city's history. To deny him the office would be -- well, let's just say the message will become more pointed as the day goes on.

12: 15 p.m., Bell headquarters, St. Paul and 23rd streets

Earlier in the summer, "Where's Lawrence?" became the Baltimore version of "Where's Waldo?"

The perception, as Bell's campaign knows, is that he hasn't been out there, hasn't been seen. They feel it's unfair, and Bell has, in fact, attended most of the seemingly unending string of mayoral forums this summer, canvassing whenever he can get away from the phones and fund-raising.

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