When `character counts,' political gloves come off

September 09, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WHEN last seen, in the fullness of his devotion to the democratic process, Julius Henson was trying to get Lawrence Bell elected mayor of Baltimore by shouting down his opponents. This time, he's more subtle. In the newly blossoming campaign for state's attorney, a job involving the prosecution of criminals, Henson's dug into the marital history, dating habits and patrimonial problems of Warren A. Brown.

Before this, Brown was best known as one of the area's busiest (and best-paid) criminal defense attorneys. He should have left well enough alone.

By the time Brown announced his candidacy last Wednesday, Henson had already hired a private "research firm" to dig through public records and uncover some embarrassing aspects of Brown's marital, and extramarital, life.

And before the day was out, The Sun's Sarah Koenig, doing her own digging, uncovered failures by Brown to pay his personal income and business taxes, a fact he did not deny and did not defend very well, either.

"The byproduct of running a business is being so consumed with other people's issues that when it comes to your own, it tends to take a back seat," Brown said.

Excuse me? This is a man who wants to jump from a private law practice with scores of cases a year to running a state's attorney's offices that handles thousands of cases (and a $22 million budget) a year. And this is his defense? (Maybe he's got a better one, but Brown did not return telephone calls to his office late last week.)

Which leaves us with Julius Henson, and the hardball tactics of running for political office in Baltimore.

"If they write a campaign book on how to start badly, this was it," Henson was saying Thursday morning, his voice awash in satisfaction.

Standing on Calvert Street between the two municipal courthouses the previous afternoon, Warren Brown had intended a feel-good announcement of his candidacy. Instead, there was this terrible story in the newspaper, for which Henson was practically taking curtain calls.

"And don't start up about the last time," Henson was saying over the telephone now. "This is not the same as last time."

Last time was the mayor's race, and that awful confrontation at the War Memorial Plaza, organized by Henson to drown out Del. Howard Rawlings' critical endorsement of Martin O'Malley. The sheer physical hostility of that moment was about as bad as it gets in politics.

Henson faded from Lawrence Bell's campaign after that debacle, but remained a stealthy political player, the driving force behind Joan Pratt's comptroller campaigns and Lisa Stancil's campaigns - first for City Council and now for state's attorney - against incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy, Warren A. Brown and anybody else who jumps in.

"I was out of town when this happened," Stancil said Thursday morning.

She meant the attack on Brown. Stancil said she'd been vacationing in Jamaica. But she wasn't entirely disavowing her involvement in Henson's latest efforts.

"He's my campaign manager, and I have total trust in him," she said. "I've hired him to get me elected. It was our intention to find out about our opposition. I know Julius is controversial, but he got me this far, and you don't change horses in midstream."

Henson's an interesting character. He's happy to show he's a product of the city's rough-and-tumble streets, but he also wants validation as a mainstream political player. Who knows what's mainstream in the post-Clinton ethos? Once you've reported the president's sex habits, and had them documented in public by that pious pornographer Kenneth Starr, does anything remain out-of-bounds in political life?

"This stuff's all a matter of public record," Henson said. "The rules have changed from Gary Hart on forward. Years ago, nobody would talk about people's private lives. But this is unfortunately part of campaigns now. It has nothing to do with [Brown's] ability to be state's attorney. But it's information we have to use and let the public decide."

There is uncomfortable truth - in some of this. The old rule was: You didn't discuss private behavior about public figures unless it affected the way they conducted their jobs. But that kind of thinking stacked the deck. Politicians could trot out comforting images of their spouses, and the kids, whenever they went trolling for votes, while leading completely contradictory private lives.

The new rule is: character counts, too. Where does the public image differ completely from the private truth - and how does that affect public matters?

Julius Henson professes merely to exploit the new morality. That's not exactly true. The awful business in the last mayor's race was an affront to civility in any time. And, going into Warren Brown's marital history is a stretch, except that it shows, as Brown admitted, "I am not perfect. I haven't always made the right decisions."

Failure to pay taxes on time, for example. That's an imperfection. And then defending it by saying he was "too busy." For a man wanting to take on the criminal justice system, that's a real conflict.

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