Success makes Henson wanted in campaigns

THE POLITICAL GAME

Appeal: Despite the image of the strategist who created a furor by calling Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a `Nazi,' he is sought after by candidates because he helps them win races.

October 08, 2002|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

HE DISRUPTED a key endorsement in Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign, shouting down the speakers and waving signs as if holding a protest rally.

He dug into lawyer Warren Brown's background for information about alleged extramarital affairs to force him out of the city state's attorney's race.

Now political consultant Julius C. Henson and his no-holds-barred style of campaigning is at the center of another furor after he recently called Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a "Nazi."

"Unless he is a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, you just can't do that," said Nancy Todd Tyner, vice president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Henson is not a member of the association. But he did make the comment. And it left the lingering question: Why would the Democratic Party have considered hiring such a volatile figure?

The answer is Henson's long list of political successes in Baltimore and, especially, Prince George's County. His ability to deliver voter turnout was seen as a tool that would bolster Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign in Prince George's, which is regarded as a critical base of support for her.

Even with his bad-boy image, Henson regularly helps candidates navigate to victory. In last month's Democratic primary, 20 candidates employed his consulting services - and 15 of them won, including political newcomers who defeated incumbents or longtime political figures for such posts as Prince George's County sheriff and state Senate.

"I think the controversies have overshadowed people's knowledge of his track record," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, who has run with Henson's help. "People who keep score know that he wins races."

Henson began his political career seven years ago with the underdog victory that sent accountant Joan M. Pratt to City Hall as Baltimore comptroller. He has become known for taking obscure candidates as well as private-sector veterans to the State House and even Congress.

He teaches candidates, their staffs and volunteers how to build voter support and raise money. He also gives instruction on field operations, such as posting political signs.

"You can tell he has a wide breadth of political knowledge in terms of the political process," said Marvin Holmes, who won a House of Delegates seat this year with the help of Henson and others. "Having Julius on my campaign, I think, was very effective, especially when you consider the alternative - Julius on the other campaign."

Some Democratic Party leaders said they believe Henson would have taken a job with the Republicans if the Democrats hadn't moved to hire him first.

The Democratic Party considered hiring him for a get-out-the-vote campaign in Prince George's, but after some discussions about bringing him on board, Henson went on the offensive - and the deal was off.

"Bobby Ehrlich is a Nazi," the Washington Post quoted him as saying in an article posted on its Web site Sept. 20. "His record is horrible, atrocious. ... He should be running in Germany in 1942."

Henson said he wanted voters to seriously examine Ehrlich's candidacy, and he doesn't apologize for the statement. "Reasonable people know Bob Ehrlich is not in the Third Reich," he said. "The point was, in a dramatic way, to draw attention to his record. And we did."

Afterward, both parties distanced themselves from Henson.

"Julius Henson was not, is not and will not be employed by the Maryland Democratic Party or the Townsend/Larson campaign," said Len Foxwell, a Townsend spokesman.

However, an e-mail dated Sept. 16 from Karen White of the Townsend campaign suggested that Democrats were negotiating with Henson. "Julius - call me - we may have to revise [the contract]," it said.

The Ehrlich campaign - which Henson claims had contacted him - says they told him no. "His brand of politics is one we have no interest in," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul Schurick.

Henson's in-your-face political style emerged in part from his reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist in the 5th century B.C.

In the 1980s, the book was a bible to Wall Street's corporate raiders. Lee Atwater, an adviser to former President George Bush, carried it with him during the 1988 campaign.

Henson said he adopted the philosophy that "an election is a transfer of power within a democracy without the guns and violence. You've got to take power. Nobody's going to give it to you."

He said he followed that belief as he fought for children as a member of Maryland's foster care review board and other organizations. And he used it as he built an impressive record as a strategist who this year has garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.

Henson, now 53, began his career managing Pratt's campaign for city comptroller in 1995. She defeated former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. There promptly was a issue over Pratt's decision to hire Henson as city real estate officer when the two had had a personal relationship. He resigned about a month after taking the job.

In 1996, Henson scored a second major victory running Elijah E. Cummings' first congressional campaign. Henson went on to run Wynn's campaigns.

His defeats have been more widely publicized, including Pratt's unsuccessful run against William Donald Schaefer for state comptroller in 1998 and three of the five losses he suffered in this year's primary - Oz Bengur for Congress, M.H. Jim Estepp for Prince George's County executive and Lisa Stancil for Baltimore state's attorney.

But even those races showed Henson's political strength.

"In the context of the races he lost, they were all underdogs," Wynn said. "If you really analyze it, he had a very good year."

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