Uninvited, but not a newcomer

Leaflet flap unveils Clay as behind-scenes force in city politics

'He's never been subtle'

September 11, 1999|By Michael James, Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Michael James, Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

Just days before the city's mayoral primary, thousands of racist leaflets began appearing on the street corners of Baltimore exhorting white voters to support the candidacy of City Councilman Martin O'Malley to save the city from "Blacks and Jews."

Attached to each handout is a letter signed by Robert L. Clay Sr., an African-American businessman who claims to have intercepted the hate-filled diatribe purportedly from a group calling itself the Aryan Blood Brotherhood.

"I'm not necessarily interested in tarnishing anyone's candidacy," said Clay, who paid to duplicate and distribute thousands of copies of the letter.

"I found it so offensive that I felt compelled to bring it to the public's attention."

Thus have Clay, 53, and the Rev. Daki Napata -- a local Baptist minister who helped reproduce the leaflets -- become uninvited participants in Baltimore's election campaign.

Even in the rough-and-tumble world of Baltimore street politics, the 11th-hour leafletting has been seen as a not-so-subtle attempt to undermine O'Malley's support among African-American voters in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Clay's motivations aside, virtually everyone has denounced the effort.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called the propaganda "destructive to this community" in announcing Thursday that he had fired Napata from his city job.

Napata, 48, a longtime civil rights activist who first sought Clay's help in copying the racist material last week, had been on the mayor's staff.

City Council President and mayoral candidate Lawrence A. Bell III -- who has received more than $6,000 in contributions from Clay in recent years -- disavowed him as a "free spirit" acting on his own.

Clay added in an interview that he has since been told by Bell campaign officials "not to come by anymore."

"He's obviously upset with me right now," Clay said yesterday.

Man with much at stake

But public records and interviews reveal that Clay is anything but a minor political player. Rather, he has quietly bankrolled a generation of Democratic candidates while reaping millions in city, state and federal construction contracts.

In the process, he became a behind-the-scenes force in Baltimore's power structure over the past decade -- and a man with much at stake in next week's election.

He was an obvious person for Napata to seek out when he came into possession of the incendiary hate letter last week. A well-known gadfly and demonstrator, Napata needed Clay's resources to guarantee the widest possible circulation.

An early and generous backer of Schmoke, Clay has been among Bell's largest contributors and has poured $26,000 into the coffers of the Democratic National Committee in the past few years, records show.

Reveling in his political clout, he once boasted in a court case, "When I call, I will get return calls."

Among his friends, he counts attorney and Baltimore County school board member Robert F. Dashiell, firebrand criminal lawyer William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. and Julius Henson, who was fired from the Bell campaign a few weeks ago for disrupting an O'Malley rally.

Bell campaign officials said their candidate would not comment further on Clay's activities, adding that Bell has "appropriately distanced himself" from Clay.

"This goes against everything Lawrence Bell stands for," said campaign chairwoman Tammy Hawley. "Absolutely, we're offended by his actions.

"There's no secret that Mr. Clay has been a substantial supporter over the years, but it would be safe to say that the relationship is now strained."

`He's never been subtle'

Still, Clay soldiered on yesterday -- seemingly impervious to the condemnation raining in from all sides -- content to answer critics with: "I gotta do what I gotta do."

"If you figure him out, let me know -- then call his wife," said Dashiell. "I doubt even she could tell you what motivates him sometimes. He makes up his mind as to what he believes, and when he does, well, that's about the end of the story.

"He's never been subtle."

Said Murphy: "Robert Clay is one of the most honest, hard-working, capable and intelligent people I've ever met. He has the courage of his convictions, and because of that, he often gets involved in conflict. He will go to the mat on questions of principle."

From the ground up

The son of a struggling Howard County backhoe operator, Clay began his career digging ditches and made his fortune from holes in the ground.

The story of his rise touches on a diverse array of ventures -- including a 32nd Street nightclub, a vitamin and cosmetics franchise, arcade games, sewage and a Nigerian oil refinery deal that resulted in one of many legal claims against him over the years.

Fast-talking, impatient and ambitious, he founded Robert Clay Inc. excavators in 1968 and reaped the benefits of minority-participation requirements for federal contractors that took hold in the mid-1970s.

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