GOP bets new face will beat big name

Trooper runs for top Balto. Co. post

Maryland Votes 2006

July 10, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Lt. Clarence W. Bell Jr. recalls his first assignment as a rookie state trooper in St. Mary's County - going undercover to buy cocaine at a bar - and how that led to his being the target of a hit man.

Later, as a SWAT team sniper, he spent 18 hours on a Baltimore roof during a standoff with inmates who had taken prison guards hostage. And when he rose to command one of the agency's suburban barracks, he came up with a plan that he says has reduced the number of traffic deaths on Howard County roads patrolled by the state police.

But Bell has never run for office. In a surprising turn of events, he is now the man Baltimore County Republicans have reached out to in the race against a county executive who is so well-funded that many political observers consider him next to unbeatable.

Bell, who will retire in December after almost 27 years with the state police, initially filed to run for Baltimore County sheriff. But last weekend, he received a call from local Republicans asking him to run for executive, the highest post in county government.

It wasn't long, he said, before someone from the governor's office gave him a call, and on the Fourth of July he walked in a parade with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

"I don't want anybody to mistake this campaign for a facade," Bell, 47, a lifelong Republican from Pikesville, said in an interview this week. "We just got started, but I guarantee, in short order you're going to see something fast and hard-moving."

Bell and Democrat Ronald E. Harvey, a county human resources employee, are believed to be the first African-Americans to run for executive in Baltimore County, the state's third most-populous jurisdiction.

Local GOP leaders asked Bell to run after a number of other potential candidates turned them down.

The county is seen as a key battleground in the governor's race, and some GOP leaders worry that not having a strong candidate would embarrass the party and allow Democratic incumbent James T. Smith Jr. to spend his time and money supporting fellow Democrats in other races.

Given his lack of name recognition and empty campaign account, Bell enters the race a huge underdog, political observers say.

"In effect, you're running for Congress, in terms of the magnitude of the campaign effort," said Herbert Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College. "To really get your message out in a very crowded environment, which this one is, you need TV, you need radio, you need the Internet, you need direct mail. And all of that's expensive."

Douglas B. Riley, who received more than 40 percent of the vote in 2002 as the Republican candidate for county executive, said it's "simply impractical" for someone with virtually no campaign money to run against a well-funded incumbent such as Smith, who, according to his campaign manager, has $1.5 million to spend on his re-election efforts.

"Baltimore County is still a predominantly Democratic county," Riley said. "I ran for two years. I worked very, very hard, essentially putting together a grass-roots campaign. But there are parts of that county that will not vote for a Republican."

Bell's campaign manager is state Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr., who was the top choice of many Republicans for executive before he decided not to run late last month.

Born and raised in Washington, Bell says he grew up in a blue-collar family that valued hard work and personal responsibility. He lost his mother to heart disease when he was 14. He and three older sisters were raised by a father who often worked multiple jobs, the longest being as a school custodian.

Bell joined the state police at age 21 after meeting a trooper at a display in a Prince George's County shopping mall.

In 1989, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer gave him and other SWAT team members citations for their roles in a shootout with a drug dealer suspect in a Prince George's County apartment. The award pointed to Bell's ability to remain calm and refrain from shooting during the incident, according to Bell.

Douglas DeLeaver, who supervised Bell in the 1980s when DeLeaver was commander of the agency's Rockville barracks, said Bell has "patience," "fortitude" and "grace."

"He's not a hot head," said DeLeaver, now chief of the Maryland Transit Administration police. "To be on the SWAT team, you have to have your stuff in order."

DeLeaver added: "He was always willing to learn."

Bell was among a group of state police officials who pioneered the state's "hot spots" community policing program in the 1990s.

He took over the agency's Waterloo barracks in Howard County in 2004, and now oversees 40 to 45 employees. He said he had an intern analyze the location and causes of traffic accidents, and he increased patrols at the most troublesome spots.

He said that after eight fatal accidents on Howard County roads patrolled by state police in 2004, there have been none in the past year and a half.

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