Mr. Nice Guy gets slapped by mayoral opponents

This Just In...

September 01, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

EXCUSE ME? Did I see a politician on TV Monday night refuse to deliver a cheap shot or a low blow? Wasn't it the guy in the middle, Martin O'Malley? Handed an unusual opportunity -- a chance to ask Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell any questions he wished on live, local, late-breaking television -- O'Malley waltzed like a butterfly and stung like one.

Weren't his questions shockingly soft and earnest, even sweet?

O'Malley asked Bell to talk about "ideas that haven't gotten enough coverage" during the campaign. Imagine, asking L. Bell for ideas. O'Malley asked Stokes for ideas, too. "Carl, what are your ideas?"

I guess O'Malley was trying to distinguish himself by being nice or something. Somebody pinch me.

The Mr. Softee questions just gave O'Malley's opponents more opportunity for generalities.

And they didn't have the effect O'Malley might have been hoping for -- neutralizing Bell and Stokes, by throwing them off with unexpected niceness.

Because, when it was his turn, Bell threw a low, fast one. He raised issues of racism and unfair labor practice charges against Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum -- not a subject with which most viewers would have been instantly familiar -- and suggested that O'Malley had weakened City Council action on the matter.

And when it was his turn, Stokes did not shy away from stinging O'Malley on racial grounds, either. His question suggested Brother Martin had done little as a city councilman to force local banks to invest more money in minority businesses. (Who knew O'Malley had the power of a bank commissioner?)

So O'Malley, trying to be nice, got slapped with the race card from both sides.

He recovered a bit, with a strong answer to Bell's question. And he thought quickly and danced gingerly in his answer to Stokes' question. But the damage was done. Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell made sure no one in the viewing audience missed the fact that Martin O'Malley is a white man.

And O'Malley, trying to be nice, scored a direct hit on neither Bell nor Stokes.

Maybe he thought Kweisi Mfume had taken care of that.

Mfume, who struck me as nervous and distracted during some of his questioning, asked Bell about the ugly "counter rally" staged by his supporters a few weeks ago. He also asked about Bell's $4,000 campaign shopping spree at Saks Fifth Avenue.

He asked Stokes about his false claim of a Loyola College diploma (though Stokes already had addressed it by boldly raising the issue himself in answer to an earlier question).

Should O'Malley have taken the opportunity to put his opponents on the spot? Two fair, pointed questions -- nothing nasty, but something with bite -- would have served him better. The Nice Guy thing worked, up to a point, but his too-soft questions seemed almost patronizing.

Maybe O'Malley is too self-conscious about being the man in the middle -- the white guy in the middle -- to come on too strong.

But he keeps calling himself a fighter, saying he's never backed down from a fight. If so, let's see it.

Stokes held his ground and made no major mistakes -- he even got in a good shot at Bell about his shopping trip to New York -- so I crown him winner by a decision in the debate. ... Bell finished a close second, on my score sheet. He had the highest hit count of the night; he cleverly got in jabs at O'Malley -- "I'm thankful to have friends like you, Mr. O'Malley" -- and suggested Stokes' support of the state takeover of the Baltimore public schools was somehow traitorous to the city's majority black population and its school leadership. (In this game this year, nothing says you can't flip the race card on a fellow black man, if you have to.) ... Bell knew enough, from the outset, to look squarely into the WBAL cameras when he spoke. O'Malley tried to do the same, but appeared to be squinting. ... Stokes won the suit battle during the debate -- with a serious, charcoal number that, he smartly pointed out, did not come from New York. ) ... Some people might end up voting for Stokes simply because he looked the most mature of the three. ... Did you notice that O'Malley was the only candidate who didn't have to apologize for something?

During the radio half of the two-hour debate, Bell made no apology for telling the heavily African-American crowd at the recent Stone Soul Picnic to vote for him because "I look like you." Bell claimed his full statment to the crowd was, "I look like you and I'm qualified." He said it was uttered in the context of his role as a model for young black men. The election is just two weeks away and, with Bell's numbers having dropped in the polls, don't be surprised to see him make more such appeals for votes.

And what was that I heard? Did I hear Bell call himself "a political outsider with no bosses but the people"? This from a guy who's taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from municipal and private employee unions, road-paving contractors, demolition contractors, hauling contractors, developers, a Las Vegas casino corporation, a racetrack, a Block strip club, even promoter Don King.

Lawrence Bell -- Mr. Outsider.

That's a good one.

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