The meeting of East Baltimore's Berea community association is packed — standing room only — and leader Julius Henson is in control. There's a tavern to oppose. A computer lab to improve. Trash to clean up.
Finally, Henson turns to the queue of political candidates from across the city who've been waiting for a chance to speak. He flashes a smile, but his tone is firm. "One minute," Henson tells them. "Quickly."
Watching Henson lead one of Baltimore's most powerful community associations, an observer might forget this is the same man who was convicted last year in a high-profile election-fraud case.
Julius Henson's career as a political consultant led him to euphoric election-night victories, but also to 30 days in jail in connection with "robocalls" that critics said were an attempt to keep black voters home on Election Day 2010.
Now, a year out of jail, Henson is planning his own run for public office.
Within months of his release, he ran for president of the Berea group and won. Then he announced he would seek the Maryland Senate seat long held by Baltimore's Nathaniel J. McFadden. "I'm going to retire McFadden," he says.
With his years of campaign experience, Henson, 64, says winning the Berea vote was easy. "That's like sending Babe Ruth to bat in the 6-year-old league," he says. But it was also a test run. As he considered a pivot from perennial consultant to candidate, he needed to see whether East Baltimore voters would be willing to cast ballots for someone with his not-so-distant past.
"It was strategically important to test how people felt about me there," he says. "Most people don't buy what happened in the newspaper." He was referring to news reports of his May 2012 conviction of conspiracy to violate election laws by not including an authority line on the robocall, part of the campaign to elect Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich lost the election to incumbent Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
As Henson served a month in jail, his elderly mother was hospitalized. "Lord, I will go postal if something happens to my mother and I'm in here for this crap," he recalls thinking.
The call targeted Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County and said they could "relax," suggesting that O'Malley had won. In fact, no one knew the results because the polls were still open. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler brought a civil case against Henson, and a federal judge ordered him to pay $1 million in fines.
Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of four charges related to election fraud. He was sentenced to 30 days of home detention and 500 hours of community service but no jail time.
Henson is unrepentant about his actions that election night. "Those were bad charges brought by the state," he says. "My contention was: This happens all the time in politics every day. To single out Paul Schurick or myself is wrong."
Of the million dollars he now owes the government? "I'll pay them," he says.
Still, Henson doesn't see the legal troubles as any reason he can't play a leadership role in East Baltimore.
After working on more than 100 campaigns — he says his victory rate approaches 90 percent — his interests have changed. He and the community association spent much of the summer cleaning up trash from dozens of lots. He says he's helped lead community opposition to what he describes as bad policy moves by current elected officials: rising water bills, liquor license expansions and a concentration of Section 8 housing tenants in some neighborhoods.
"Look, I made a lot of money. Making money is good, but service is better," Henson says. "In a long, kind of difficult route, I've come to understand that."
Some in Berea say Henson has invigorated the association, increasing membership. At the community meeting, a police officer marveled at the current strength of the organization.
"This is overwhelming to me," Officer Angelia Presberry said as she surveyed the crowd of about 150 people. "I go to a lot of community meetings and we get four or six people. This is a shock right now. It shows me there's great participation in this community."
The head of the elected body Henson hopes to join — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — has little to say about his candidacy except that he plans to lend his assistance to McFadden in "any and every way I can.
"I would think it would be a no-brainer for the people of Baltimore City," Miller said of voting for McFadden. "He may not need my help, but I'm certainly at his beck and call."
Henson says he believes Miller would "throw everything and the kitchen sink" against him.
"What happened to McFadden, bless his heart, is once he became part of the leadership, he can't be for the people," Henson argues, casting himself as an outsider.
McFadden, who attended the community association meeting, thanked Henson for his one minute of speaking time. He used it simply to greet the crowd. "Happy Holidays to everyone," McFadden told the audience, smiling. "Thank you, Mr. President," he said to Henson.
Afterward, McFadden, 67, leaned against a wall and mingled with residents, appearing unconcerned about his challenger.
"I've been a part of this community and a member of this association since its inception, and the people have treated me well," McFadden said. "Everybody has the right to run. The people will decide."
Henson grew up in Baltimore's Lafayette Courts housing project and graduated from Mervo, where he was a member of the wrestling and debate teams. He attended Morgan State in 1973, a classmate of former city solicitor Neal Janey.
After college, he ran a printing business and made money as a landlord. In 1975, he ran for clerk of the Circuit Court but lost.
"That's what got me into politics," Henson says. "I vowed to never lose another election."
As a political consultant, Henson worked on campaigns for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, U.S Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, whom he once dated.
His campaigns often made headlines. In 1998, he disseminated campaign literature on behalf of Glendening that critics characterized as race-baiting. He paid a crowd to shout down the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings when he endorsed then-mayoral candidate O'Malley in 1999. And while working for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's campaign for governor in 2002, he called Ehrlich, his future client, a Nazi.
Henson says he believes media coverage of him has frequently been skewed. "Rather than say 'A black guy's smart,' they say I'm 'barebones' or 'hardknuckles.'"
In his current campaign, he's already won supporters.
"I'm not worried about a person's past," says Brenda Fitzgerald, a member of the community association. "All of us have got a past. Look at Gansler. He was partying with a bunch of people with their shirts off. We all have mistakes. We pick up and we move on." Is Henson the right man for the Senate job? "Right now he is."
But others aren't so sure voters will be forgiving.
"I have a very hard time seeing how you recover from something like that," says Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Still, Eberly says Henson could try to "make a compelling case for why he was the victim and why the system was out to get him."
Veteran political strategist Larry Gibson says despite Henson's support in Berea, he has lower and more negative name recognition than McFadden. "McFadden is well-known and popular," Gibson says.
Henson says he needs no further pitch for change than a simple walking tour of some neighborhoods in the district.
"We have no jobs, high unemployment, dilapidated housing. We have no services to speak of. And we have political leadership that tells you the same thing all the time and is not accountable," he says. "If you're happy with that, vote for him. If you're not, vote for someone else."
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.
twitter.com/lukebroadwaterCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun