Pratt finds strength, success through connections, faith

Baltimore City Comptroller

October 27, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

There are three books in Joan M. Pratt's City Hall office that best explain her nine-year hold on the elected post of Baltimore comptroller: a Bible, Barron's dictionary of financial terms, and The Portable Machiavelli.

God, numbers and politics. All within arm's reach of Pratt, a devout Christian, a certified public accountant and the only citywide politician without an opponent in next week's general election and last year's Democratic primary.

In a recent interview, Pratt, 52, credited God for her success. She also recalled that her career in finance arose from working in her mother's East Baltimore corner store. But she downplayed the presence of a book about Machiavelli, the Renaissance political philosopher associated with thoroughly un-Christian political gamesmanship. She said it was a gift.

Yet she then spoke of her three political ambitions. Two - running for mayor or state comptroller - are well known. She has been Mayor Martin O'Malley's most frequent critic since she was elected in 1995. She ran unsuccessfully for state comptroller in 1998.

The third ambition, however, would make Machiavelli proud.

"Another option is to run for lieutenant governor," Pratt said.

She said she would be interested in being Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's running mate in the 2006 governor's race.

Although Pratt's name shares green-and-white campaign signs with O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon, her popularity is based on her independence, experts said. Her overture to Duncan - who will likely face O'Malley in the Democratic primary for governor - enhances that reputation.

Political observers said Pratt's strength also rests in neighborhood support. She is a member of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, one of the city's largest and most influential, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

She grew up in Baltimore - first on the east side and then, in junior high school, on the west side. She graduated from Northwestern High School, and earned an accounting degree from Hampton Institute in 1974 and a master's degree from the University of Baltimore in 1991. She also runs an accounting business and debt elimination seminars.

Two council members, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. and Helen L. Holton, are interested in Pratt's job but are not challenging her.

"Her grass-roots connections are better than any citywide candidate," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

It was that support that helped propel her to victory in 1995 over former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. Arthur W. Murphy, Lapides' campaign consultant, said, "She came from nowhere with a grass-roots base and a church base, and beat somebody who was very popular who spent a lot of money."

Pratt ran into criticism for hiring her campaign manager and close friend, Julius Henson, as real estate officer. In addition, former City Councilman Carl Stokes criticized Pratt for never auditing former police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges of misspending police funds.

For the most part, her office has avoided scandals.

"She's quiet, confident and clean," Murphy said.

As comptroller, Pratt controls the city's audits and real estate departments. The former has the power to review financial records of city departments controlled by the O'Malley administration. The real estate division handles leases and selling city property.

Pratt also serves on the city's five-member spending board, which includes O'Malley, Dixon and two O'Malley appointees.

"She looks at checks and balances as a natural part of her responsibility," said Anne O. Emery, founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. "She's a voice in the wilderness."

Pratt maintains a list of "no" votes that she has cast against O'Malley. She cast the only objection to the city's $42 million loan to Baltimore's public schools this year, saying the city should have accepted the state's offer instead. She said that between Jan. 1, 2000, and Aug. 31 of this year, her audits have recommended new systems that, if implemented, would have saved $18.7 million.

"She's been a good watchdog in the sense that she's not a rubber stamp of O'Malley," said the Rev. Gregory Perkins, former head of Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "A leader is someone moved by conviction, not popularity."

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