Former City Council colleagues weigh in on mayoral hopefuls

Those who served with Bell, O'Malley, Stokes split support

September 08, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In addition to serving on the City Council, the three leading mayoral candidates have 17 other things in common: the council members they've worked with.

Interviews with the men and women who served on the City Council between 1992 through 1996 paint consistent pictures of City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, City Councilman Martin O'Malley and former City Councilman Carl Stokes.

Yet much like the city electorate, council members who served with the candidates are split over which man they support.

Bell is credited with being principled, loyal to his word, with a love for the city. But current and former colleagues worry about his organizational skills, including his failure to follow through on council initiatives.

"He tells the truth," said former council President Mary Pat Clarke, who backs Bell. "And if he tells you [he's] for it or against it, you can put it in the bank."

Council supporters and detractors use the same term to describe O'Malley: high-energy. O'Malley is credited with an ability to focus, carrying a dynamic ego that feeds on action and getting results. Yet detractors say he has a penchant for grandstanding and political revenge that harms his ability to build coalitions.

"Martin would make a decision, and he would help you push," said former City Councilman Perry Sfikas, who backs O'Malley. "It's one thing to say `I'm with you'; it's another thing to make it move. That's what we need now."

Stokes, who served on the council for eight years before stepping down to run for City Council president in 1995, is described as bright, caring and a hard worker with a passion for city schools. Yet his council critics fault him for abstaining on tough votes to avoid offending either side.

"Carl had a real good grasp of educational issues," said City Councilman John L. Cain, who served on the education committee that Stokes chaired. "He has the capacity to learn about a particular issue and understand the right direction to go."

All three men understand how city government operates. Their combined council experience amounts to 28 years. Bell's supporters praise him for his commitment to public safety and his role in the firing of former city Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods in 1993 over the high homicide rate. In addition, Bell pushed for the establishment of a civilian review board on police matters and was active in the council probe of discrimination in police department disciplinary actions.

"[Bell] said what he believed," said City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., who backs O'Malley. "[Bell] stood out there on a limb a couple of times and made tough stands."

Critics fault Bell for failing to take charge and follow through on matters. In the past two years, he has abstained from voting on such issues as shifting the city election to presidential years and increasing penalties on unpaid parking tickets, and a Board of Estimates vote to condemn 90 properties in Wagner's Point.

"I'm trying to think of an issue he took leadership on," said former City Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, who backs Stokes and ran against Bell for council president in 1995. "Mostly it was City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's issue, and he followed a script."

O'Malley also earned his council stripes fighting for anti-crime measures with Bell. As head of the council's Legislative Investigations Committee -- Bell appointed him to the panel -- O'Malley probed city housing, police and, most recently, illegal pay phones in drug-afflicted neighborhoods.

Former and present colleagues describe O'Malley as unwilling, to a fault, to let go of an issue.

O'Malley, an attorney, used his power as chairman of council committees to block rivals' legislation, council members said. During recent budget battles, O'Malley threatened to hold up administration spending bills until cuts for items such as recreation were restored.

Because the administration held a majority vote on the council, O'Malley routinely opposed bills and was accused of grandstanding on issues when he knew his wasn't the key vote. The most recent issue involved the projected $350 million West Side Development proposal for downtown, which he opposed in council but says he would support as mayor.

"He's effective in being against something," said former Councilman Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, O'Malley's former 3rd District colleague. "It's a much easier role to be against something."

Stokes served on the council from 1991 to 1995. He is primarily remembered by his former colleagues for leading the council's education committee and for his opposition to the city's hiring of a private company to manage city schools. In addition, Stokes was a leader in opposing the redistricting of schools and the use of state funds for private school vouchers.

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