Bell making political return in city with run for state Senate

Maryland Votes 2006


For a long time after Baltimore's 1999 mayoral race ended, people wondered what happened to Lawrence A. Bell III.

The former City Council president entered the campaign as a frontrunner, then lost the Democratic primary to Martin O'Malley after a series of high-profile missteps.

Shortly after his defeat, Bell seemingly disappeared. Rumors placed him in Atlanta, maybe hosting a radio show, but they were never confirmed.

Now Bell is plotting his political comeback. He's running for the West Baltimore state Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic incumbent Sen. Ralph M. Hughes.

"I haven't been absent from Baltimore," he said last week. "I decided to shift gears for a while."

Bell, a Democrat, said Baltimore residents are urging him to return to politics.

He said he has begun attending community meetings, trying to get a pulse on the issues that District 40 residents care about: police making improper arrests, the condition of the city school system and crime.

"I'm focusing like a laser beam on the 40th District," Bell said. "We're just going to focus on the people this go-round, and talk to the people, and focus on today and focus on the future. What I heard people saying as I travel around: `We need Lawrence Bell and others like Lawrence Bell, who are there to take a stand and be strong.'"

As he talked about the future, he was vague about his recent past.

In a brief telephone interview that took two weeks to arrange, Bell, 44, skirted questions about his whereabouts for the past six-plus years.

He said he traveled extensively and has been chairman of a nonprofit organization responsible for protecting crime witnesses.

He said he did host a radio show but would not say where. But, he said, he has always maintained a residence in Baltimore.

On his filing papers, Bell, a Randallstown native, listed his father's dental office at 3326 Auchentoroly Terrace as his residence. In his days on the council, he stayed in an apartment above the office and also had a condominium on East Chase Street.

Bell declined to talk about his failed mayoral bid, saying, "I think the people remember me, at least, as a fighter and willing to throw down the gauntlet."

He faces stiff competition in his comeback attempt. Also running in the Democratic primary for the vacant Senate seat are Dels. Catherine E. Pugh and Salima S. Marriott, City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, prisoners' rights activist Tara Andrews and former City Council candidate Timothy Mercer. The winner will face Republican George Stephen.

Arthur W. Murphy, a longtime Baltimore political consultant, said Bell is a formidable candidate and a credible threat to his opponents.

"He's the man to beat," Murphy said. "It's his to lose."

Murphy said Bell's citywide name recognition, fundraising ability and affable demeanor will make up for his absence.

"If I were in the Senate race ... I'd be scared to death," Murphy said.

But Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Bell faces almost impossible odds.

Long odds seen

"His candidacy in '99 was a disaster, and that's putting it mildly," Norris said. "He was the leading candidate, and his campaign crashed and burned.

"He's been out of office and out of sight and out of mind since '99, so I would guess his chances aren't that good. He was not home tending to the vineyard and growing the grapes, and he's trying to sip the wine from that vineyard, and it's not his. So the question is: Does he have any sort of organization left? Can he build an organization with virtually no time left?"

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced in 1998 that he was not seeking re-election, Bell was widely viewed as the frontrunner to succeed him. He had developed a tough-on-crime reputation after 12 years on the City Council and had won a citywide race. And he had raised more than $1 million for his mayoral bid.

Then past financial problems came to light: Bell had skirted paying his condominium fees until he was threatened with court action and he had to settle a lawsuit over his 1996 Ford Mustang, which a bank repossessed. And he reportedly spent $4,300 of his campaign cash for clothing during a shopping trip at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City.

O'Malley - then a councilman and a former ally of Bell - sensed an opportunity and entered the contest.

Bell turned off some voters when he interjected race into the campaign, urging a mostly black crowd of festival-goers to vote for "a man who looks like you do."

Then, a group of Bell's supporters disrupted the endorsement of O'Malley by a group of prominent black state legislators, including Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. The supporters shouted, taunting Rawlings as a "pseudo-Negro." Bell dismissed a campaign consultant over the incident.

Days before the primary, two of Bell's supporters made 3,000 copies of a flier produced by a purported white supremacy group endorsing O'Malley.

Police investigated and determined that the group didn't exist.

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