Strategist hired for city's census effort

Benton also will lobby in D.C., O'Malley says

March 09, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley will pay Democratic political strategist Cheryl Benton $61,000 to get an accurate count of Baltimore residents for the 2000 U.S. Census and to serve as a Capitol Hill lobbyist.

O'Malley pointed to Baltimore's ranking as 91st among 100 cities in the accuracy of its 1990 Census count as his reason for Benton's hiring, announced yesterday.

The census, a national count of residents undertaken by the federal government every 10 years, is critical to cities such as Baltimore that receive much of their federal funding based on population estimates.

"We had thousands and thousands of dollars that didn't come to Baltimore," O'Malley said of the 1990 count. No stranger to Maryland politics, Benton has served as a campaign manager for state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is O'Malley's father-in-law, in addition to helping run the mayoral campaigns of former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and former City Councilman Carl Stokes.

Benton contends that much of Baltimore's missing count a decade ago occurred in poor neighborhoods, where residents are suspicious of filling out government forms. She hopes her work can bring more federal dollars to struggling Baltimore families, she said.

Benton intends to reach out to organizations already in contact with those who might be reluctant to be involved in the process, such as churches, service organizations and neighborhood groups, she said.

Benton's hiring was welcomed by city government observers who view the census count as critical. Baltimore faces a projected $153 million budget gap over the next three years because of stagnating tax collections.

"If she can get a more accurate count, she will earn her salary many times over," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

The city Board of Estimates approved Benton's contract shortly before the hiring announcement. Under the 14-month pact, which will run through April 20, 2001, CA Benton Associates will earn $32,500 -- not to exceed $100 an hour -- for the census work.

Benton will also be paid $28,500 to lobby on behalf of the city in Washington. Benton's salary will make up the 20 percent minority contracting component of the $131,000 Capitol Hill lobbying contract approved by the Board of Estimates last month for Van Scoyoc Associates Inc.

Benton is a strong ally of state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House Appropriations Committee chairman who also encouraged the city to hire Jeanne Hitchcock as Annapolis lobbyist. Hitchcock serves as deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs, earning $130,000 per year, bringing the annual bill for the city's chief Annapolis and Washington lobbyists to $261,000.

O'Malley defended the spending, saying he hopes the lobbying investment will pay off in more federal dollars for the city, which receives about 17 percent of its $1.8 billion budget from Washington.

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