Less insight, more quip heard during candidates' debate

September 01, 1999|By Gregory Kane

LAWRENCE BELL walked first into WBAL's studio Monday night, his face unsmiling, emotionless. Carl Stokes soon followed him. Martin O'Malley came out last, smiled and shook hands with Stokes, who smiled back. O'Malley's old friend Bell didn't acknowledge him.

That soon changed. While the ensuing debate among the three leading Democratic mayoral candidates can't be described as lively, it sure was fun. Especially when O'Malley turned, looked Bell in the face and referred to the time in 1995 when city voters "elected my friend Lawrence Bell City Council President."

When Bell's turn came to respond, he looked directly back at O'Malley and smiled for the first time that night.

"I'm thankful to have friends like you, Mr. O'Malley," Bell quipped.

It qualified as a nominee for quip of the night, but first prize went to Stokes, who came up with a corker.

"I don't need to go to New York for new ideas," Stokes said in reference to his opponents' support of the New York Police Department's "zero-tolerance" approach to fighting crime. "I don't even need to go to New York for a new suit."

The latter was a reference to Bell's using more than $4,000 of his campaign funds to buy suits from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Bell was soundly criticized for the purchases, which he called a legitimate campaign expense. He apologized for any appearance of impropriety. Lord knows why. The guy dressed worse than I do. He needed the new threads, which make him look more mayoral, somehow.

Other highlights of the evening:

Best question not asked of any candidate: "How can you, as a Democrat, run for mayor with a clear conscience? Shouldn't Democrats exclude themselves from all city offices since they have a 32-year record of failure?"

The topics that need further debate: zero tolerance and what has been called -- in jest, we should all hope -- the "partnership" in education between Baltimore City and the state of Maryland.

Bell and O'Malley are for a zero-tolerance approach to crime. Stokes is against it. Bell and O'Malley are impressed by zero tolerance's success in New York, but let's look at the downside for a moment, shall we?

Part of New York's zero-tolerance approach was turning loose the so-called "elite" Street Crime Unit on the city. Vibe magazine reported early in 1999 that members of the SCU fired multiple times at a rapper by the name of ODB (believe me, you don't want to know what the initials stand for) and then charged him with attempted murder for firing at them. The charges were dropped when cops were forced to admit ODB didn't have a gun. What saved ODB was the bulletproof vest he was wearing.

West African immigrant Amadou Diallo wasn't as lucky. He was wearing no body armor the night four officers from the SCU fired 41 times at him, hit him 19 times and killed him instantly. One of the few black officers in SCU testified this year that in 1997 and 1998 the SCU stopped 45,000 people and arrested 9,000, of whom some 4,500 eventually went to jail. (The officer was fired immediately after she dimed out the SCU.) Bell and O'Malley need to tell us what they will do as mayor to ensure that people walking or riding on the streets minding their own business aren't stopped arbitrarily in the name of zero tolerance.

While they're at it, they might want to explain why Baltimore cops should adopt anything from a department now being derisively referred to -- in the wake of a Haitian immigrant being sodomized by police with a stick -- as "the plunger patrol."

Bell pointed out -- correctly -- that he is the only city politician to oppose the state takeover of Baltimore schools. He and Stokes had an exchange on this point during the debate. Stokes denied a state takeover, saying the arrangement was more of a partnership.

Partnership? The school board -- appointed by the mayor and the governor -- has shown it feels accountable to no one in this city. As long as that attitude prevails, Baltimore's education "partnership" with state government will smack of little more than a feudal arrangement.

Best counter-question: Stokes, when asked by a caller in the radio-only segment of the debate if he had ever used illegal drugs, responded by asking how many media types had ever used illegal drugs.

The winner: Bell had a slight edge. Like the legendary John Henry driving in rail spikes, Bell constantly hammered away at his theme of how he's already performed in a citywide office, reminding voters that past performance in the political trenches is what matters. In a dead heat race like this one, Bell's record might be worth a couple of thousand votes that will put him over the top. Too bad he's a Democrat.

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