By Van Smith
Published in Baltimore magazine, Nov. 1999
It’s a June day in 1995, and Batman and Robin are doing what they do best: grandstanding.
As anti-administration members of a pro-administration City Council, Lawrence Bell III (a.k.a. Batman) and Martin O’Malley (a.k.a. Robin) have few weapons in their political arsenal. So when the duo has a bone to pick with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, they call a press conference. Today, they’re in front of City Hall, decrying Schmoke’s racially tinged re-election campaign.
“We’re disturbed about the escalating racial and religious tensions that plague our city,” proclaims Bell, a slim black man who swims in his too-large suit. “What good is victory if what you’ve won is destroyed in the process?” At 33, Bell’s looks belie his experience: He has represented the largely black and poor Fourth District for eight years, and he’s running for City Council president.
Now it’s O’Malley’s turn. “One of the things people say to me often s that they like the way Lawrence and I work together,” the lanky white man muses. “That is where the future of this city lies.” O’Malley is finishing his first four years representing Northeast Baltimore’s racially integrated, middle-class Third District; he’s running for re-election.
The bond that earned these two men their nicknames does seem extraordinary, given the race-tinged minefield that is Baltimore politics. No wonder the duo’s other joint tags are “Salt’n’Pepa” and “Miami Vice.”
O’Malley plays clear second fiddle to Bell at this event. But some believe that it is he, not Bell, who is driving the Batmobile.
Today, “Batman and Robin” is no more. On June 22 of this year, O’Malley drove the final nail in the team’s coffin by announcing that he would run for mayor against his long-time ally.
One brutal primary campaign later, O’Malley is the Democratic nominee, a near sure thing to win in this Democratic town. And Bell – once the front-runner – is a distant third-place finisher, packing up his things to move out of City Hall.
In the aftermath of O’Malley’s victory, some questions remain. What really happened to the Bell/O’Malley team? How did their years-long friendship erode into political and personal rancor? And how did O’Malley rise so fast while Bell fell so hard?
Lawrence A. Bell is a career politician. The son of a prominent dentist and a public-school teacher, Bell grew up at a coveted address – Auchentoroly Terrace, a tree-lined stretch of beautiful porchfront rowhouses near Druid Hill Park. He went to the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in government and politics and becoming the president of the Black Student Union. When Bell was elected to the City Council in 1987, he was 25, the youngest member ever. Bell was proud to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s first cousin, Kweisi Mfume, who had been Fourth District councilman before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986.
The 1987 elections also ushered Kurt Schmoke into the mayor’s office. Schmoke’s victory was seen as the end of the William Donald Schaefer machine, which for 14 years had overseen a nationally recognized downtown revival. Schmoke cast himself as the anti-Schaefer, promising to bring prosperity to neighborhoods untouched by the waterfront renaissance.
But instead, many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods underwent shocking deterioration. A crisis in the city’s public schools combined with a national crack-cocaine epidemic to overwhelm the administration’s attempts at revival. By the early 1990s, the annual murder rate had topped 300. The city’s police commissioner, Edward V. Woods, refused to acknowledge the role of vicious New York-based drug dealers in the bloodletting. Faith in law enforcement plummeted.
During Schmoke’s 1991 re-election campaign against former state’s attorney William Swisher, the mayor’s effectiveness was questioned, but there were few Democratic voices of open opposition. Schmoke was re-elected. But on the City Council, the stage was set for an organized anti-Schmoke faction.
Martin O’Malley first took his seat in the City Council in 1992, supplanting Bell as its youngest member. Then 29, O’Malley was steeped in politics. His suburban Montgomery County upbringing, education at Catholic University, and experience as an assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City had been peppered with political involvement. He had worked on Gary Hart’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 and on Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 election to the U.S. Senate. And O’Malley himself nearly denied state Senator John Pica Jr. re-elction in 1990; Pica won by only a few dozen votes. Even O’Malley’s 1990 marriage to Catherine Curran, the daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, strengthened his political connections.
O’Malley found Bell harder to get to know than some of his other new colleagues on the council. But he saw that Bell was a courageous legislator, never ducking a rough vote. Plus, Bell was black, and in a majority black city, a white politician needs all the black friends he can get.
To Bell, who was entering his second term, O’Malley was a political comrade. He was only one year younger than Bell and shared Bell’s taste for grandstanding. O’Malley also had friends in high places. Each saw a political opportunity in the other.
O’Malley got the alliance going by helping Bell gain the chairmanship of the council’s public-safety subcommittee, giving Bell a bully pulpit from which to denounce Commissioner Woods.
It’s January, 1993, and Bell is ready to issue a public ultimatum to Woods. O’Malley and councilman Anthony Ambridge are on board.
The three meet at City Hall to discuss how to proceed. Ambridge, who is white, says the city’s racial realities dictate how it must go: “This should be put by you, Lawrence, rather than us, because of the politics.” If the white councilmen take the lead in denouncing a black mayor’s black police chief, it might look racially motivated.
So Bell pulls the event together solo and gives the men 10 minutes’ notice. When O’Malley gets the call, he drops what he’s doing and runs to City Hall.
Bell calls for Woods’ resignation if he fails to reduce the violent crime rate within six months. Then he protests “the near-total silence emanating from the leadership of our city” when it comes to crime. O’Malley chimes in: “I’d just like to see a little progress,” he declares.
The announcement makes headlines in The Sun for two days running. And when the six months are up, Bell and O’Malley are in the newspaper again. Woods resigns shortly thereafter.
Score one for the dynamic duo.
After the Eddie Woods victory, Bell and O’Malley applied themselves to opposing the mayor. Together, they fought tax increases and pushed for tax cuts. They scrutinized police spending, tried to attract talent to the police commissioner’s post by increasing its salary, criticized the private management of public schools, helped to push through a curfew for juveniles, and decried the housing department’s awarding of no-bid repair contracts. In spring of 1995, council president Mary Pat Clarke reactivated the dormant Legislative Investigations Committee and made O’Malley its chair.
When campaign season 1995 rolled around, O’Malley again helped Bell, who was running for City Council President against fellow City Councilmembers Carl Stokes, Vera Hall, and Joe DiBlasi. Bell’s West Side base would support him, but he needed significant backing in other parts of the city.
He found it in the Third District, where O’Malley was running for re-election on a ticket with first-time council candidates Joan Carter Conway and Robert Curran, the uncle of O’Malley’s wife. Their ticket oversaw the Third District’s effort to get Bell elected. Of the city’s six districts, Bell led in only two: his own and O’Malley’s. In a crowded field, that was the margin he needed.
So it was no surprise when the new City Council president treated O’Malley well, handing him the chairmanships of the Taxation and Finance and Legislative Investigations committees. These two key assignments gave O’Malley the watchdog role he relished. Using the platform Bell gave him, O’Malley was able to broaden his reputation as a reform-minded, populist outsider.
Bell also treated O’Malley’s Northeast Baltimore neighbors well: First District Councilwoman Lois Garey became head of the Land Use Committee, while First District Councilman Nick D’Adamo was named chair of the Budget Committee.
Within Schmoke’s inner circle, this preferential treatment made it look like O’Malley was controlling Bell. At one point, Daniel P. Henson III, Schmoke’s housing commissioner – and no friend of the dynamic duo – tried to warn Bell to watch his back.
“Don’t be so sure everybody who says they’re your friend is your friend,” Henson told Bell outside City Hall.
“What do you mean?” the president asked.
“O’Malley – he’s running your show,” Henson said.
“No,” Bell responded, “I’m calling the shots.”
But if Schmoke’s friends worried about O’Malley’s influence on the new president, they weren’t above trying for some of that influence themselves. The city’s political rainmakers started making overtures. Baker-developer John Paterakis, a strong and dependable financial backer of Schmoke, bought a table at the Congressional Black Caucus’s Annapolis gala in the fall of 1995. In an augur of things to come, Bell sat at Paterakis’ table.
On Paterakis’ agenda was how to capitalize on his land holdings at Inner Harbor East, along the waterfront next to Little Italy. (Baltimore magazine’s offices are located in one of these properties.) A 50-story hotel at Inner Harbor East – though nearly a mile away from the newly expanded Convention Center – could help meet a growing demand for hotel rooms and also generate tremendous revenue for Paterakis. But such a large building was out of keeping with the community-developed plan for the area. Also, opponents of gambling feared that the hotel would one day be turned into a casino. To construct the building, Paterakis would need support from the mayor, approval from the Board of Estimates of which Bell was chair, and legislation from the Bell-led City Council.
Bell, meanwhile, had been left with a campaign debt of $111,000, so he kept his fundraising machine in gear. And Paterakis’ pro-hotel crowd ponied up. Between February 1996 and November 1997, more than $16,000 was contributed to the fund by Paterakis companies, members of the hotel-development team, or known supporters of Paterakis’s project.
“I’m in the big leagues now,” Bell told City Paper at the time. The donations, he said, represented his desire to garner support not only from his grass-roots base, but also from heavy-hitters.
The legislative battle was enormously controversial. The Sun played the hotel as a sweetheart deal for a privileged few. And while Little Italy residents were generally in favor of Paterakis’ project, Southeast Baltimore community leaders were adamantly opposed to it.
Ultimately, Bell and virtually all of the council, O’Malley included, approved the hotel project, though its height was reduced along the way to 31 stories. While it cannot be said that Bell sold his votes, the cash infusion into his coffers did signal the start of an inexorable process: his wooing by (and of) the city’s political moneybags.
Through all of this, Batman and Robin battled on. They opened 1996 with an attempt to derail the reconfirmation of Henson as housing chief, moved to stop Schmoke’s attempt to raise taxes, then devised a way the city could save money by offering workers retirement incentives. Bell sent O’Malley’s Legislative Investigations Committee to New York to study the city’s strict, “zero-tolerance” style of policing.
By 1997, O’Malley and then Bell turned on Commissioner Woods’ replacement, Thomas Frazier, and called for his dismissal over racial discrimination on the force.
Still, Bell seemed to be softening his stance against the mayor. “Bell, Schmoke Forge ‘Refreshing’ Relationship,” read a Sun headline from September of 1996. Many saw this as a detente – an agreement between superpowers to leave well enough alone.
It’s spring of 1998. As usual, the council is faced with a budget proposal that cuts funding for city programs. The council cannot increase the mayor’s budget, but it can save programs by making cuts elsewhere. Ordinarily, the president takes the initiative, pushing individual amendments.
This time around, though, O’Malley suspects Bell isn’t with the program. It looks as if Bell has made a deal not to embarrass the mayor. O’Malley feels unsure about Bell, not knowing until the roll is called which way he will vote.
From Bell’s perspective, it feels like any other budget battle, with the president taking his share of the heat. The difference, if there is one, is that Bell has grown more presidential, compromising with the pro-Schmoke majority in order to gain ground. He isn’t just a councilman any longer; he is responsible for the work of the whole council. Lawrence thinks his friend Martin understands this.
The last day of the council session, after the final budget votes, O’Malley stays late in his city council office. Then he trundles under the City Hall dome.
He sees Bell walking his way. “Well, I think we did the best we could,” Bell says.
“No, Lawrence, I think I did the best I could,” O’Malley replies.
Bells seems incredulous. “What does that mean?” he asks.
“I really don’t f—in’ know,” O’Malley says before walking away. “Why don’t you take the summer and think about it?”
During the summer of 1998, Bell’s list of backers started to look more like Schmoke’s. A prime example was attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, who tried to protect the housing department during the no-bid repair scandal and later became executive director of the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation, which administers a $100 million federal project.
In 1998, Hitchcock lobbied for two main clients: Phipps Construction Contractors, which wanted permission to use a Northeast Baltimore site for a rubble-crushing operation, and Baltimore Entertainment Center, which wanted bars on The Block on East Baltimore Street to be allowed to serve liquor past 2 a.m. Hitchcock and these clients began donating to the Bell campaign fund that summer.
Another name to appear on Bell campaign finance reports then was Gia Blatterman, a Little Italy power broker who has long been a staunch supporter and energetic fundraiser for Schmoke. As word spread of Hitchcock’s and Blatterman’s donations, some O’Malley allies got nervous.
“It just appeared that he was surrounding himself with individuals that some of us believe weren’t in the best interests of the city – and/or Lawrence,” recalls Third District councilman Robert Curran. “And it just seemed that Lawrence was much, much less accessible to Martin.”
O’Malley agrees. In fact, he says Bell flat-out told him he’d been advised to distance himself from his old partner. “[Bell] said African-American opinion leaders would say to him things like, ‘You can’t appear to be controlled by people like Martin O’Malley and [former Bell aide] Jody Landers and Mary Pat Clarke,” he recalls. O’Malley remembers understanding this, telling himself, “He’s doing what he needs to do.”
Bell doesn’t remember it that way; in fact, he seems amazed at the suggestion. “He’s making that up,” says Bell. “Nobody ever said that.” As for his shutting O’Malley out, Bell says “it was always an open-door policy. He could call me at home whenever he wanted.”
Adds Bell’s brother Marshall, who worked on the campaign: “Martin wanted to think he could control Lawrence Bell in the presidency. Martin has a certain arrogance about him, a kind of paternalistic feel: ‘Sure, you’re my brother on the one hand, but I’m smarter than you, so do what I say.'”
Meanwhile, people close to O’Malley began to lose faith in Bell. “I broke camp probably July or August of last year,” recalls O’Malley’s old running mate Joan Carter Conway, who was appointed to the state Senate in 1997. “I knew something wasn’t right.” Conway warned O’Malley in the fall: “He’s gone, Martin, he’s sold out.”
With Bell seeming destined for a shot at the mayor’s office, O’Malley had his eye on the City Council presidency. He wanted to run on a ticket with Bell and suggested to Conway that the three of them sit down to work out their differences. But their meetings in November and December did not go well.
As O’Malley recalls it, “[Bell] said, ‘No, I don’t want you running for council president. Maybe some sort of public-safety liaison person.’ And I thought it was very strange that all of a sudden he wants me to take over some sort of middle-management duties.”
Bell recalls the meetings very differently. He never denied O’Malley a spot on his ticket, Bell says, because O’Malley never asked for one: “On many occasions, he was asked what he wanted, and he never would say.”
According to Marshall Bell, it would have been foolish for Bell to join forces with O’Malley so early, especially with city councilwoman Sheila Dixon contemplating a run for president of Bell’s West Side home base. Marshall says his brother told O’Malley, “Whatever you want, Martin, but as far as an endorsement goes, it would be political suicide.”
Then, Bell was buffeted by major changes in the political landscape. Schmoke announced in December that he would not run for re-election. Shortly afterward, Bell’s former colleague Carl Stokes entered the race, as did crusader A. Robert Kaufmann. Bell’s cousin Kweisi Mfume, rumored to be considering a run, announced that he would remain as head of the national NAACP. Almost immediately, important politicians began pleading with Mfume to reconsider. And it seemed like Mfume was doing so.
The impact of the “draft Mfume” effort on Bell was huge, says Mary Pat Clarke, who knows both men well: “This is a hero to Lawrence Bell, and a member of the family. And instead of helping Lawrence Bell, it turns out that he may run for the job du jour. That was the wound that would not heal for Lawrence Bell. He was never the same after that.”
Bell got caught up in legislative wrangling over whether to amend the city charter to allow an Mfume candidacy. (The NAACP chief had not lived within city limits for the required year.) Bell took heat first for failing to introduce the amendment and then for introducing it.
As Mfume mulled, Bell reeled, and his reputation for independence frayed. Word spread that Bell’s father was fielding political advice from his longtime friend Larry Gibson, an advisor to Schmoke, and that Bell himself was spotted at lunch with housing commissioner Henson, another Schmoke intimate. A look at Bell’s campaign-finance reports shows evidence that Schmoke’s Department of Public Works director George Balog, who made his name as a rainmaker by steering DPW contractor donations to political candidates, was actively raising funds on Bell’s behalf.
In March, before either man had announced his candidacy, O’Malley organized a fundraiser for himself at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters in Hampden. As FOP president Gary McLhinney understood it, O’Malley was planning to run for city council president on a ticket with Bell and incumbent City Comptroller Joan Pratt.
But Bell’s personal relations with O’Malley continued to cool. O’Malley suspected that the Schmoke crowd was supporting Bell on the condition that he ditch his old friend.
The issue of Bell’s closeness to a Schmoke ally came to a head in April. The Phipps rubble-crusher proposal had been winding through the council process for more than a year. Expected to be a noisy and dusty enterprise in a residential area, the proposal angered environmentalists an Northeast Baltimore community groups – both important constituencies for O’Malley and his colleagues in the First and Third districts. On the other side was Phipps, a black-owned firm seeking to operate a business on its own land. In the end, the council split on the matter, and Bell cast the deciding vote. He voted in favor of Phipps – a stinging blow to some of his long-term allies.
“[Bell] was trying to be too much to too many people,” says city real-estate officer Anthony Ambridge, who supported Bell in the mayor’s race. “He called it the ‘big tent theory.’ He was trying to bring everybody into the tent. And by doing that he was excluding some of his closest friends.”
City Councilwoman Lois Garey describes her disappointment more pointedly: “[Bell] kicked every friend he had in the head.”
Marshall Bell says that his brother’s Phipps vote involved issues broader than the wishes of O’Malley and his neighbors. That it came to be seen as a breaking point between Bell and O’Malley reveals the assumptions behind the friendship, he adds: “These kind of people, if you don’t agree with them 100 percent of the time, they start saying you sold out.”
The day after Bell’s tie-breaking vote, Bell and O’Malley sit down to lunch at Chiapparelli’s Restaurant in Little Italy with the FOP’s McLhinney and Marshall Bell. Lawrence Bell is just about to announce his candidacy, and McLhinney has brokered a summit, hoping to mend the breach between them.
It’s the first time in about a year that McLhinney has seen to two men in a room together, and he senses major problems between them. Nevertheless, he lays out the case for a Bell-O’Malley-Pratt ticket. Then, he turns to Bell. “What do you think, Lawrence?” he asks.
“I don’t want to make any commitment until after the filing deadline,” Bell responds.
O’Malley goes on the offensive, asking Bell to explain his ties to Schmoke’s “old warhorses.” “How you win also dictates how you are able to govern,” he says, “and if you win this way, you won’t be able to govern.”
Bell gets defensive, asking why he’s not getting more support from O’Malley’s allies. Then he cuts to the chase. “What are you going to do?” Bell asks.
“Well, my sense is that you are dropping like a rock,” O’Malley says.
Marshall Bell chimes in: “See, there you go again, you’re always negative.”
Lawrence Bell agrees, saying O’Malley’s negativity is what cooled the friendship.
“I’ve always told you the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not,” O’Malley retorts. “If you were my friend, you’d always tell me the truth.”
“It was how you said it,” Bell says. “I don’t need my friends being negative. All this stuff puts me under a lot of pressure.”
“Well, what do you think it will be like when you’re mayor?” O’Malley asks.
“I don’t need a lecture from you about what it’s going to be like to be mayor,” Bell shoots back.
At the end of the lunch, Bell asks O’Malley what office he’s planning to seek.
O’Malley says he doesn’t know. He’ll do a poll to see if he has a chance of winning the mayor’s race. If he can win, he’ll run; otherwise, he’ll run for City Council president if the polls show a win is possible. “And if I can’t win either of those things, then I’m going to get out altogether,” O’Malley says. “And I’ll let you know.”
In late May, cousin Kweisi finally announced that he definitely would not run. The Annapolis powers who had pursued him immediately switched their attentions to former city Police Commissioner Bishop Robinson. And a score of other candidates joined the Democratic race.
Meantime, O’Malley’s poll showed him at 7 percent in a mayor’s race, compared to Bell’s 36 and Stokes’s 27. It also indicated that most of Stokes’s supporters could also support Bell and vice versa. O’Malley concluded that voters weren’t committed to either one of them, meaning he could cut into their bases. O’Malley announced his candidacy in late June.
Even without an O’Malley candidacy to contend with, though, Bell’s campaign was in crisis. Powerful friends could fill his coffers, but they could not dictate how he ran his race. In the first three months of 1999, the Bell campaign took in nearly $200,000 and spent more than $130,000, paying out half that amount to five costly advisers: Marshall Bell, Tammy Hawley, Julius Henson, and fundraisers Lona Rhoades-Ba and James Cauley, who was on loan from O’Malley. Another $10,000 was spent on debt from his 1995 campaign.
O’Malley, by comparison, raised $45,000 and spent $35,000 from late March through late June. During these months of campaign-building, O’Malley had no paid advisors except for his long-time fundraiser Cauley, who received $4,096.
Matters other than money hurt Bell. His campaign was marked by missteps, such as the candidate’s propensity to arrive late to forums or not show up at all; his workers’ attempt to disrupt a rally at which Mfume’s Annapolis suitors endorsed O’Malley; and his workers’ copying racist flyers attributed to white supremacists. Every time Bell was embarrassed in the media – for example, by reports that he left his wrecked Mustang at the body shop until it was repossessed and that he failed to pay his Belvedere condo fees – he would disappear from the campaign trail. He seemed to take each setback to heart rather than letting it go.
When Bell did appear, he made race an issue in a way his opponents did not, explicitly offering himself as a role model for young African Americans. More than once, Bell attacked O’Malley for refusing the censure Baltimore-based Crown Central Petroleum, which had been accused of racist practices in Texas. (O’Malley’s response was that Crown had not been invited to defend itself.)
As if to symbolize how far he had traveled from his partnership with O’Malley, Bell spent election day with Marion Barry, the disgraced and redeemed former mayor of Washington, D.C.
In the end, O’Malley won 53 percent of the vote to Bell’s 17 percent. Carl Stokes came in second, with 28 percent of the vote.
If it’s true, as O’Malley said, that how you win also dictates how you govern, then an O’Malley administration would be marked by efficient fundraising and spending, a motivated and diverse cadre of workers, a focus on a few key issues, backing from state leaders, and support from an energized public.
But these aren’t the only factors that propelled O’Malley to victory.
Though he ran on the campaign pledge “for change and reform,” O’Malley’s campaign also relied on old warhorses, and his horses were even older than Bell’s. Some of O’Malley’s key change agents hail from the days of once-mayor, now state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, whose endorsement also brought many Schaefer cronies into the O’Malley camp. Even the head of O’Malley’s transition team, Downtown Partnership’s Laurie Schwartz, began her career as one of Schaefer’s best and brightest.
Another old-fashioned factor in O’Malley’s win may have been the use of “walk-around money” – money paid to get “volunteers” to electioneer near polling places. It is against state law to pay workers on election day, and O’Malley denies that anyone was paid to electioneer for him on that day. Nevertheless, polling places throughout the city seemed to have multiple O’Malley workers for every Stokes or Bell worker, and word on the street was that they were being paid. One O’Malley poll worker said he received $35 to stand on the corner wearing an O’Malley T-shirt and handing out literature. Another worker, who said he had not been paid, said he’d heard that other were receiving $35 to $60 for their efforts, depending on the neighborhood. Whoever funds such payments funds them directly, without reporting them, so if O’Malley’s campaign did benefit from such largesse, persons unknown did him a big favor.
But if O’Malley needed old-time backers to win the primary, he also needed Bell. Without the high-profile alliance of Salt’n’Pepa, O’Malley might have been just another white Northeast Baltimore politician, not one of a new, race-blind generation of leaders. After his partnership with Bell crumbled, O’Malley used its rubble as the launching pad for his own ambitious campaign.
This month, O’Malley faces Republican underdog David Tufaro, a millionaire developer with strong credentials as a community builder. Unless Tufaro pulls off an upset immeasurably more stunning than O’Malley’s primary victory, Baltimore can look forward to Mayor O’Malley.
But can O’Malley govern independently? Is he more resistant than he thinks Bell was to the siren song of the city’s moneyed players?
When these questions are put to him, O’Malley’s answer is nearly identical to one of Bell’s stock campaign lines: “All I can say is, look at my record,” he says. “Look at what I’ve done on the council; look at my politics.”