Bell's big well of funds ran dry

Mayoral hopeful spent $1.16 million he raised

$5,000 loan paid debts

October 27, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III finished his recent political quest for mayor much the way he began his career for public office 12 years ago -- by borrowing money from his mother.

After building a campaign treasury of more than $1.16 million for his mayoral bid, Bell borrowed $5,000 from his mother, Elinor Bell, days after September's primary to pay debts, his latest campaign report shows.

His cash balance at the close of the reporting period that ended Oct. 17 was $1,182.40 in his active fund-raising committee account and $1,434.46 in a second account. A full third of his money -- the largest single category of expense -- was used for salaries of staff and consultants.

Despite the strong fund-raising effort, Bell finished third with 17 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Earlier in the year, Bell was considered the odds-on favorite.

"They had to do more in getting out the vote," said former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a volunteer with the Bell campaign and one of his strongest and most vocal supporters. "They had a plan and then they funded that plan. But their get-out-the-vote effort required more money."

Political analysts said that Bell seemed to take a more defensive position -- guarding his position as front-runner early in the race -- rather than using his finances in a way to best promote his public image and position on issues.

Two months before the primary election, Bell was defending himself over problems with his personal finances. Creditors sued him three times -- twice over about $12,000 in late condominium fees and once for $2,855 still owed to Provident Bank of Maryland after his 1996 green Ford Mustang convertible was repossessed.

"What's happened is the early polling showed that he was the front-runner by a wide margin," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think that Mr. Bell's strategy was not to do anything or say anything that would cause him to lose votes. He was trying to hold the ball until the whistle blew.

"He thought the less he said, the better [off] he would be. That turned out to be a big mistake."

David Brown, Bell's spokesman, said Bell's losing the race was about more than how the finances were spent.

"There was a ground war that could have been won through money," Brown said. "Then there was the electronic and media war."

In particular, Brown said the media kept Bell under a constant microscope throughout the campaign.

Bell could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In the final weeks before the Sept. 14 primary election, Bell's fund raising declined. While Democratic nominee Martin O'Malley raised more than $600,000 during the latest reporting period, Bell collected $73,820.

Carl Stokes, who finished second in the mayoral race, has yet to file his report with the election board, although it was due Oct. 22.

Bell's top contributors included Robert Clay, who created a stir when he made copies of a racist campaign flier supporting O'Malley as part of what he and the Rev. Daki Napata said was an attempt to educate the public. Clay gave $2,000 in the days before the election.

Leading the contribution list were Mid-Atlantic Properties Inc., a Lutherville company, and Crouse Construction Co. Inc., a Darlington-based company, both of which donated $4,000. As had been the trend in Bell's other finance reports, he received much of his money from contractors and developers.

But by Sept. 17, Bell was running a deficit and his mother lent him $5,000.

Elinor Bell and the council president's father, Dr. Lawrence A. Bell Jr., have been the financial base of their son's campaigns since he entered the political arena in 1987. In his run for council president in 1995, Bell's parents lent him more than $100,000 to help finance his campaign.

Bell seemed to live a lavish life-style during the campaign, spending $4,323 on suits from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and $371,434 in salaries for consultants and staff. Among the top consultants were his campaign chairwoman Tammy Hawley, who received more than $50,000 during the campaign, and political strategist Julius Henson, who collected $28,000 before Bell fired him in August for disrupting an O'Malley endorsement rally.

Bell was the first to launch a mainstream media campaign, for which he spent $212,187.

The state attorney general's office has said that the suits would have to be sold after the campaign and the money placed in his campaign fund.

"He was obviously very skilled at raising money," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. "That just didn't translate into getting votes for him."

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