Bocce Brawl: A Little Italy Bocce Feud Winds Up in Court

by Van Smith

Published by City Paper, June 22, 2011

“We don’t need any negativity about Little Italy,” Giovanna Marie “Gia” Blatterman says over the phone on June 15.

The 64-year-old businesswoman is one of the neighborhood’s most visible and diehard promoters, and she has a long history of political clout and controversy. When Kurt Schmoke was Baltimore’s mayor in the 1980s and 1990s, she was a key fundraiser for his campaigns and served as one of his appointees on the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals. Today, part of her civic involvement is running what she calls the Little Italy Bocce Committee, an all-volunteer, unincorporated outfit that oversees Wednesday night bocce competitions at the city-owned Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr. Park. The park, a tiny space with two bench-lined bocce courts, is tucked off Stiles Street amid Little Italy’s restaurants and rowhouses.

Based on two recent Wednesday night visits, there appears to be nothing negative in the least about the peaceful, placid bocce games being played there. No voices were raised, no tempers flared, and the slow, deliberate pace of the game, which involves two teams strategically rolling balls down a carefully tended court, promotes a calm civility that, even on an evening with temperatures in the high 90s, tends not to make people sweat.

Nonetheless, a ghost of negativity haunts the place. That’s because Blatterman, her bocce committee, and their lawyer have taken a feud from D’Alesandro Park and moved it into the District Court for Howard County, Civil Division. There have been heated bocce disputes in Little Italy before, including one in 2002 that featured Blatterman in a fight with a neighbor over lighting the courts at night, and even one that became a lawsuit, dismissed in 2003, over a neighboring restaurant’s fire escape and an ordinance that would have closed down bocce play at 9:30 p.m. But none of the prior disputes came with accusations as hot as these.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed on March 1, are the Little Italy Bocce Committee, Blatterman, and two other committee members, Salvatore Petti and Francis Blatterman. Petti’s daughter, Lisa Ellis, represents them. They are asking the court to make the defendant—52-year-old Marriottsville resident Thomas John Macchia—pay thousands of dollars in damages and attorney’s fees, and to order him “forever barred” from Little Italy’s bocce courts and from obtaining any bocce permits from the City of Baltimore “for a period of no less than ten (10) years,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit, as initially filed, claims defamation and malicious destruction of property and accuses Macchia of writing defamatory graffiti and posting defamatory notices around the neighborhood. It also claims he destroyed lighting, a video camera, a souvenir map, and bocce equipment at D’Alesandro Park. A pretrial conference is scheduled for June 21—the day this article goes to press—and Macchia is proceeding without the benefit of an attorney.

Shortly after it was filed, though, Macchia twice was charged criminally in Baltimore City District Court based on applications for charges filed by Blatterman. In the first criminal case, filed on March 6, Macchia was accused of malicious destruction of property for breaking the bocce court’s lighting, camera, and map “on or about” Aug. 19, 2010, according to court records. But in the second, filed on March 9, Blatterman accused Macchia of serious violence.

As a result of Blatterman’s written statement, court records show Macchia was charged with first- and second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and witness retaliation for driving “his car over the curb onto the sidewalk straight at” Blatterman, who was standing on the corner outside Café Gia, her daughter’s Little Italy restaurant. The complaint also says Macchia “has made prior death threats against me, my daughter, and my grandson” and is “trying to intimidate me so I will not testify about his criminal activity.”

On April 27, the Baltimore City State’s Attorneys Office declined to prosecute all but one of the criminal charges, placing one count of second-degree assault on the inactive docket so, if needed, it could be pursued at a later date. The outcome, Macchia acknowledges, included an oral agreement made in front of a judge that he will not go near Blatterman’s home or business for three years—but he insists, despite Ellis’ contentions otherwise, that he’s free to go to the bocce courts and to Little Italy, as long as he stays away from those two places.

On June 14, Ellis filed a “pre-trial statement” in the Howard County lawsuit, which ratcheted up the accusations, saying Macchia “engaged in a campaign to terrorize” Blatterman “over his anger at the bocce situation.” The statement says the plaintiffs intend to add additional counts, seek higher damages, and name Macchia’s wife, Lisa Macchia, as a defendant because she “knew or should have known that Giovanna Blattermann [sic] was in danger.”

Macchia says that, thanks to the lawsuit and the criminal charges, “in the court of public opinion, I’m already convicted of crimes that never occurred.” Indeed, he calls them “imaginary events in [Blatterman’s] mind. And now they are going to try to bring my wife into this. My wife has no knowledge of something that didn’t happen.”

According to Macchia, the whole dispute erupted because his bocce team—Tutto Bocce, which was sponsored by Caesar’s Den Restaurant—kept winning the annual tournaments that take place each summer among about a dozen teams. So Blatterman “tried to chase us off,” he says, because she and her fellow committee members are “sore-losing types.”

Not so, Ellis says. Macchia and his teammates “didn’t like the [bocce] committee, because they were cheating. They were very disappointed that the prize money was only $400. It wasn’t $1,000 like they wanted. He was trying to cause a lot of trouble because he didn’t get his way.”

Passion over bocce competitions—a traditional Italian game, in some ways similar to shuffleboard, involving teams that roll four balls each on a court, attempting to score points by getting their balls closest to a smaller, target ball—is to be expected, as in any sport. But the back-and-forth allegations in this fight raise bocce passions to eye-popping—or maybe eye-rolling—levels.

Things escalated, Macchia claims, in 2009 and 2010 when he started publicly raising questions about Blatterman’s integrity in managing the affairs of the bocce committee, of which he was a member until last year. This, Ellis says, is where Macchia started to defame the plaintiffs, by publicly calling them “thieves” who “can’t be trusted.” An anonymous flier attached to the lawsuit, which claims it was distributed around the neighborhood and posted at the bocce courts, contends that “Blatterman says she allegedly made a donation” from the bocce committee to St. Leo Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy, but the “authorities of the church deny any gift from our league.”

Macchia denies any part in the flier, but he continues to maintain that $1,500 in committee cash, assembled from fees collected from teams, that was ostensibly donated to the church in 2009 remains unexplained. “I advised [Blatterman] to give a check, not cash, to the church because it doesn’t look good, it’s not the proper thing to do,” Macchia says. After he learned she said she had given cash anyway, he says, “I asked her for proof, and she produced a church bulletin that thanks the Little Italy Bocce Rollers Association, which isn’t even our group. To this day, we don’t know where that money went. But to not have a check is a red flag, in my opinion.”

So this year, disgusted and alienated, Macchia says he decided to break off on his own. In early January, he applied for a permit from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks to have his own Wednesday night bocce games—a move that could have supplanted Blatterman’s night on the bocce court.

At first, in February, he was told in a letter from the city that he would be granted a permit for the Little Italy courts on Tuesday nights, and on Wednesday nights he could use the courts at another city park. But then, Macchia says, the city made an “about-face,” and denied him altogether—after the lawsuit and Blatterman’s felony charges against him were filed.

The denial came in an April letter from the City Department of Recreation and Parks, which states “information from the Law Office of Lisa P. Ellis regarding your activities in and around the Little Italy Bocce Courts . . . provides the background information for the denial of this permit application.”

Macchia contends that the criminal charges were brought simply to undermine his permit application, since people with felony backgrounds cannot be granted a permit. But by that time, Macchia had already drawn first blood in the legal fight, having sued Salvatore Petti for $300.85 in early February over bocce committee finances. Petti countersued for the same amount a few weeks later, and in early May, the case was dismissed. But, as far as Ellis was concerned, the damage was done.

We “didn’t want a lawsuit,” Ellis says, but Macchia “filed a lawsuit against my father” in which “he wanted money that he wasn’t entitled to.” Despite the accusation that Macchia had tried to “kill Gia” and made “death threats” against her and her family, Ellis adds, “We still didn’t want anybody to go to jail or see anybody hurt.” She also contends—despite the fact that the alleged car assault occurred after the lawsuit was filed—that “it was only after he tried to kill her” that she and her clients decided “something needed to be done.”

Macchia’s “harassment occurred over the course of two years,” Ellis continues, and “I was the one who stopped him. He had to be stopped. People quit [playing bocce]. And since he’s not here, I can’t tell you how many people have come up to say how much happier” they are.

For his part, Macchia says the situation is “kind of comical.” But he adds that it is “sad that one person like this could so abuse the system and not have any repercussions. It’s such a shame that a game, bocce ball, could result in false felony charges and bizarre civil charges.” Asked if he plans to visit the bocce courts again, since he contends he’s free to do so, he says: “I had four felony charges, unfounded charges, filed against me. Given that, you tell me if you would go back there.”

Giovanna Blatterman has, in fact, faced repercussions before for abusing the court system. In 2003, court records and news reports show, Blatterman and her mother, Rosa Aquia, together paid a total of nearly $163,000 to Little Italy activist Roberto Marsili, since deceased. The payments were made to satisfy a court judgment Marsili had won against them in 2002, when a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found that the two women had engaged in “abuse of process” by having Marsili arrested on false criminal charges and filing an unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against him.

Marsili proved that Blatterman and Aquia had tried to silence his criticism of their real estate dealings. A company they controlled, Pascal Rose Development LLC, had received a controversial no-payback loan from the city, and Marsili believed it was a “sweetheart deal” due to her City Hall connections, and he published his thoughts on the matter in his Little Italy newsletter, The Guardian. One of the crimes with which Blatterman had Marsili charged—and to which Marsili pleaded guilty, on the advice of his attorney at the time—was vehicular assault, for attempting to drive her down in his car. She’s now, in essence, accusing Macchia of the same conduct.

Blatterman had Ellis handle all questions and comments on her behalf for this article. When reminded of the similarity between the car-assault accusation Blatterman is making now against Macchia and the one she made against Marsili in 1997, Ellis says Blatterman fears that Macchia is “researching her past” and “trying to recreate things” that she had been involved in before. Ellis insists that she has proof of Macchia’s alleged violence and threats, and that, as an attorney, she would never assist in a malicious prosecution of false claims.

“I have independently corroborated everything my clients are saying,” Ellis says. “There are witnesses, affidavits, handwriting experts, a video expert,” all of which will be used in proving the case. “He just needs to be stopped,” she adds. “This is about people’s safety.”

In an effort to convince this writer that Macchia is the one who was captured on videotape destroying property at the bocce courts, Ellis plays two segments of video on her laptop. In one segment, some unidentifiable individuals, quite small and obscure figures on the screen, can be seen at the bocce courts at night, and one of them picks up what appears to be a two-by-four and smashes some of the court’s lights. In the other, in which a man takes a framed object off the wall at the bocce courts, drops it to the ground, and stomps on it, well, that man could be Macchia, a heavy-set, balding, round-faced guy. Prior to breaking the object—Ellis says it is a souvenir map of Little Italy, worth $500—the culprit walks face-first up to the camera, and the individual onscreen resembles Macchia.

“No, that’s not me,” Macchia says over the phone the next day. “There are plenty of other people who look like me. They showed that tape to the prosecutor in the criminal case, and obviously, if it was me, they would have prosecuted me, but they didn’t. The malicious destruction of property charge was thrown out. And the judge looked at it too, and said it was not conclusive. The criminal judge said no. If the civil judge says yes, well, I’ll appeal, because there’s no proof.”

Based on what Ellis wrote in her eight-page pretrial statement, Macchia’s going to have his hands full impeaching witnesses and other evidence, should the case go to trial. Doing so without the aid of an attorney may prove a daunting challenge.

Ellis’ statement says she plans to introduce as evidence a letter sent to Blatterman that reads, “Death to the Gias We Will Kill You Bitches and Luca Too,” and was delivered in an envelope containing white powder. “HAZMAT came, the fire department came, the police department came and took it away,” Ellis recalls. She has handwritten fliers that read, among other things, “Stop Gia Blatterman from Stealing your Money.” She has photos of graffiti on the bocce-court benches and elsewhere in the neighborhood that read, among other things, “Gia sucks,” “Gia is a thief,” and “Café Gia sucks.” And she states that she has two handwriting experts who will testify “that all defamatory fliers, notices, writings, and graffiti” submitted as evidence in the case were written by Macchia.

In all, Ellis stated that she plans to call seven to 15 witnesses, and explained that “many more wanted to testify, but plaintiffs have considerably shortened its number (via affidavits) in the interest of judicial economy.”

Macchia accurately predicted that City Paper would have a hard time finding anyone willing to comment for this story. “They’re afraid they’ll get sued if they do,” he said. But one man—a longtime friend and supporter of Blatterman’s, real estate developer Wayne Gioioso Sr.—stepped up to comment when reached by phone.

“I love Gia,” Gioioso says, explaining that he’d already been called by Blatterman about this in-the-works article because “she’s concerned you’re going to make the neighborhood look bad.” The way Gioioso sees it, the bocce dispute arose because “people who don’t live down there” in Little Italy “are causing trouble. It’s typical Italian stuff. They can’t get along. You have different factions that are combative with each other. That’s all.”

No matter who is right or wrong in this situation, one thing’s for certain: There are rules in bocce, and at least one of them has been broken in this dispute. Attached to the lawsuit are the “Wednesday Night League Bocce Rules,” which, at the very end, state: “BUON DIVERTIMENTO (HAVE FUN).” While the bocce lawsuit appears to be no fun at all, at least the bocce games at D’Alesandro Park still are.

Flight Connections: Shawn Green is more than an accused drug trafficker on the run

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A booking photo of Shawn Michael Green, dating from the 2000s.

By Jeffrey Anderson and Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 12, 2008

For more than two decades, East Baltimore clothing store Total Male has been associated with fashionable urban attire. Located on a bustling block of Monument Street, not far from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the popular store has also sold tickets to concerts and hip-hop DJ events.

But a federal drug and money-laundering indictment unsealed last year against 41-year-old fugitive Shawn Michael Green, who was the president of an affiliated West Baltimore store called Total Male II, complicates Total Male’s image as simply a place for scenesters to buy clothing and tickets to parties.

The indictment also opens a window into two well-connected East Baltimore businessmen with interests in Total Male–and in politics: Milton Tillman Jr., a sizable figure in real estate, nightclubs, and bail bonds, who was part of the company that owns Total Male, which is located at 2330 E. Monument St.; and Noel Liverpool Sr., a former football star at Morgan State University who has had interests in bars, apparel, and real estate, and who helped Green open Total Male II, in Mondawmin Mall in 1996; Total Male II has since closed.

The ties between these two men and Green suggest an overlap in the city’s legitimate business economy and the drug underworld.

Green suddenly disappeared sometime around March 26, 2007, when federal agents attempted to bring him in on drug charges after arresting his mother, Yolanda Crawley, and serving search warrants on a number of their Maryland and Florida properties. As a result, the investigation was disrupted, but the unsealed indictment accuses Green of drug trafficking since 1998 and calls for forfeiture of $4 million in cash, property, and other assets. On March 20, a four-story Reservoir Hill apartment building owned by Green is scheduled for auction as a result of the forfeiture.

Though Green remains at large, three of his co-conspirators–lawyer Rachel Donegan, mortgage broker David Lincoln, and Green’s mother–pleaded guilty last year for their parts in his alleged drug and money-laundering scheme and await sentencing in the coming weeks. All three copped to wire fraud that allowed Crawley to purchase luxury homes in Maryland and Florida using false loan applications. The probe into Green’s alleged conspiracy is ongoing, according to the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the indictment mentions “others” who are allegedly involved, in addition to Green, Crawley, Donegan, and Lincoln.

Green’s case is intriguing in part because he fled, but also because of the stature of Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. Nothing to tie Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. to Green’s alleged conspiracy has come to light publicly so far.

To some, these two businessmen are icons in the underserved communities of East Baltimore. Together, the two are fully in charge of large swaths of property that bear the scars of inner-city poverty. Between them, Tillman Jr., Liverpool Sr., and their family members, along with their various companies, own scores and scores of properties around the city and surrounding counties, including more than a few along East Monument Street. On a recent afternoon on Monument, for example, near where Total Male operates, there was a palpable sense of disorder along the strip of liquor stores, carry-outs, bail-bonds companies, and tax-service providers that populate the block. A Baltimore police officer was writing up an older gentleman for what appeared to be loitering while ignoring a crew of young street-bike riders as they tore off down the street popping wheelies.

The trade name Total Male was registered from 1993 until it lapsed in 1998 to All Pro Sports Enterprises Inc., which was formed in 1985 with Tillman Jr. as a board member. In 1996, Liverpool Sr. helped Green set up Total Male II, according to the attorney who filed the incorporation papers, with the written permission of Total Male’s resident agent.

Green is listed in incorporation papers as president of Total Male II, and his mother and his father, Michael Green, are also listed as officers of the company. Corporate records list the principal office as 2339 Eutaw Place–the address of Green’s forfeited apartment building scheduled to go to auction, which also served as home base for Green’s Platinum Hill recording studio.

Among the many mysteries surrounding Green and Total Male is the claim to the brand name. Anthony J. Dease of Royal Supreme Motors, an auto dealership and tag-and-title service a block away from Total Male’s East Baltimore location, claims that “I was in Total Male long before Shawn Green was there. I started the business like 25 years ago.” Dease was convicted for stealing city funds in the mid-1980s, but adds, “I work for the city now.”

Confusion about Total Male’s ownership structure is only partly cleared up by state business records. The trade name was owned by All Pro Sports, and in 1992 Dease was listed as the company’s president. In 1993, John H. Bates Sr.–who owned the Monument Street property that houses Total Male and other Tillman businesses–became the resident agent. The property is now owned by Tillman Jr.’s son Milton Tillman III, who bought it in 2005. Reached by phone in early March, Bates contends that he is “one part of Total Male, the one in Mondawmin Mall,” and when asked if he knows Shawn Green says, “Yes, I do,” but declines any further comment.

The formation of Total Male II comes with its own backstory. Attorney Leronia Josey drew up its corporate papers in the mid-1990s. She recalls dealing not with Shawn Green but with Noel Liverpool Sr. in setting up the company. Though she confirms that Bates gave Green written consent to use Total Male II as a business name, she says she never met Green.

“I remember [Liverpool] as an enterprising person who wanted to own a piece of the American Dream,” says Josey, a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents who currently sits on the Maryland Higher Education Commission. “I do a lot of work for churches and small businesses. There was a big push for economic development at the time.”

According to Josey, Liverpool saw a market for fashionable urban apparel. “I went to Mondawmin Mall and said, `I need to see what you’re doing with this store,'” she recalls. “There were all these nice coats and jackets.” She says she hasn’t had contact with Liverpool in more than a decade.

Green’s indictment potentially sullies the images of Tillman Jr. and Liverpool Sr. as community leaders and raises questions about whether Baltimore’s illicit economy is intertwined with its legitimate business and civic landscape.

Most emblematic of this, perhaps, is their ties to politicians. One of Liverpool’s companies, Liverpool Enterprises Inc., has donated $4,000 to each of the campaign committees of Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway. Conway’s CIG Professional Tax Services is located directly across the street from Total Male, at 2331 E. Monument St., and her husband, Baltimore City Liquor License Board employee Vernon Conway, is her partner in that business.

One of Tillman Jr.’s real-estate companies, New Trend Development, has donated $1,000 to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith’s campaign and $500 each to former Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell and former Baltimore State’s Attorney Stuart O. Simms, who ran for Maryland attorney general in 2006. Tillman’s 4 Aces Bail Bonds has contributed $4,750 to politicians since 2001, including $1,200 to Maryland Del. Talmadge Branch and $1,000 to state Comptroller Peter Franchot.

Though Liverpool Sr. has a clean criminal record in Maryland, Tillman Jr. has twice been convicted in cases that reverberated in Baltimore political circles. The first, in 1993, was an attempted $30,000 bribe of Gia Blatterman, then the acting chair of the Baltimore City zoning board. In 1996, shortly after Tillman was released from prison in that case, a jury convicted him of tax evasion for his use of front companies to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in nightclub revenue. Most recently, Tillman Jr. and others were acquitted of illegally using property to underwrite bail bonds in criminal cases.

Attempts to reach Liverpool Sr. and Tillman Jr. for this article were unsuccessful. Jeffrey Chernow, an attorney for Liverpool Sr., did not return several calls. Tillman Jr.’s attorney Gregory Dorsey said he would relay a message to his client, who did not return the call.

Much less is known about Shawn Green. Despite being indicted as a longtime major drug trafficker, he has managed to fly below the radar. Federal court records in Florida indicate he has had previous drug arrests, but in Maryland he’s only been charged before with one crime: a 1992 disorderly-conduct charge in Baltimore City. In 2006, according to court documents, federal law enforcers seized more than $900,000 in cash from people they identified as Green’s associates. Federal law enforcers decline to say how the cash seizure helped investigators move the conspiracy case forward–or any other details or insights about the case against Green.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein insists that Green’s sudden disappearance last March is not unusual. “Usually we catch them in a week or two,” he says. “About five or 10 suspects a year remain at large.” He says he has no idea when Green fled but believes it was after federal agents arrested his mother and served search warrants at six properties on March 26, 2007. Rosenstein also does not seem flustered by Green’s flight. “There were two priorities,” he says, pointing to the intended arrest of Green and seizure of drugs, money and documents. “The main priority was to execute the search warrants.” He adds, “We have lots of evidence that we won’t disclose unless or until we go to trial.”

Which means there’s more to Shawn Green than what’s in the public record. And though Josey may have been satisfied that Total Male was simply helping its owners chase the American Dream, court records show that some of its employees and principals have engaged in illegal activity. Other than Dease and Tillman Jr., who have criminal backgrounds, those records show at least two Total Male employees were convicted on federal drug trafficking charges.

And then there’s Shawn Green, indicted for major drug-related crimes, but yet to be caught or convicted.

Reversal of Fortune: Two Years Ago, Martin O’Malley Was Lawrence Bell’s Political Sidekick. This Year, O’Malley Broke With Bell, Challenged Him for Mayor – and Won the Nomination. What Really Happened Between the Two That Led to Bell’s Downfall?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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?”

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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.”