Lawrence A. Bell III, who surprised many eight years ago by winning a 4th District council seat, yesterday savored another victory as he captured the Democratic nomination for City Council president.
With 100 percent of the city's 372 precincts reporting, Mr. Bell had 40,199 votes (30.3 percent). In a virtual tie for second place were Joseph J. DiBlasi with 33,714 votes (25.4 percent) and Vera P. Hall with 33,556 votes (25.3 percent). Carl Stokes had 23,923 votes (18.0 percent), and Shelton Stewart had 1,414 (1.1 percent).
Mr. Bell, a scrappy but soft-spoken councilman, took victory from his opponents in a family-run campaign that relied on word of mouth, tireless door-knocking and high-powered endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and seasoned politicians. Mr. Bell's high-spirited but low-money race for the top spot was a near one-note campaign that touted his efforts to fight crime.
Mr. Bell's next challenge will be against unopposed Republican Anthony D. Cobb in the Nov. 7 general election.
Fears that the three black contenders would split the black vote, giving the nomination to lone white candidate Mr. DiBlasi, did not materialize. In addition to Mr. Bell's victory, Mrs. Hall, whose campaign identified closely with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, came in virtually tied for second.
With a large Democratic majority in Baltimore, Mr. Bell will be favored to win the council presidency in November, just as Mayor Schmoke will be the heavy favorite in the mayoral race.
Mr. Bell and Mr. Schmoke have long been on opposite sides on issues involving education and crime. Last night, however, Mr. Bell was looking forward to forging a new, more amicable relationship.
"It's going to be a cooperative relationship -- cooperative but I will remain independent," Mr. Bell said during a celebration at the Gallery of Events on Eutaw Street. "The key is the very beginning of the next few years. We have to establish a dialogue with the mayor. We will not agree on everything, but we're going to have to find common ground. I will let the past be water under the bridge."
Mr. DiBlasi, who was the front-runner until the end, led in very early returns last night, and his supporters were upbeat at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. Then a fire alarm -- which turned out to be false -- cleared the room. Only minutes later, DiBlasi supporters returned in surprise to find that Mr. Bell was now ahead. The race was over.
Mr. Bell and his three main opponents all ran polite campaigns, and no single issue dominated the race.
At candidates forums and debates, the candidates could be seen chatting quietly, laughing and even hugging one another.
Rarely did the campaigns become negative.
While on the trail, the four worked to shore up base support by focusing on their pet issues. Mr. Bell focused on crime, Mr. DiBlasi on business, Mrs. Hall on coalition building and housing, and Mr. Stokes on education issues.
Though the candidates -- all seasoned council members for at least the past eight years -- were operating heavy door-to-door campaigns since July, their messages had a hard time getting through to voters. And that lack of interest showed in the campaign coffers of all except Mrs. Hall, who raised more than $200,000.
Even into last week, many voters said they were not sure about the council president candidates' issues. The candidates complained that the hotly contested mayoral race had eclipsed their race and taken away voter attention from the beginning.
Those factors may have been the reason that none of the candidates
pulled ahead of the pack. Polls showed that they were in a virtual tie for three months.
In the final days before the election, each launched media campaigns to convince the huge block of undecided voters to go their way.
Last week, Mr. Bell, who has city-wide name recognition but raised very little money for the campaign, promoted endorsements from popular Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume and former Democratic Rep. Parren Mitchell. Mr. Mfume, who is Mr. Bell's cousin, stood at his side during the victory speech.
Mr. DiBlasi, who has been a councilman since 1983, used $50,000 of his own money to place two campaign commercials on television for four days.
Mrs. Hall, a close ally of the Schmoke administration, touted that connection in a heavy rotation of radio ads. And Mr. Stokes, whose campaign started off strongly but wound down in the last weeks, ran a television campaign commercial the day before the primary.
One of the only controversial issues surrounding this campaign involved calls of racial politics. Mr. DiBlasi, the lone white candidate, said early in the race that he would target white voters and leave the black voters to the other three. Shortly after that announcement, amid criticism and praise, he said that he would target all voters.
Also, community leaders and ministers urged that either Mr. Bell, Mrs. Hall or Mr. Stokes drop from the race to avoid splitting the black vote. The leaders warned that in a majority black city that just four years ago had drastically redrawn councilmanic districts to give blacks more political punch, all three could end up losers.
Mr. Bell, Mrs. Hall and Mr. Stokes all said that their individual messages would cross racial boundaries.
But in three polls commissioned in part by The Sun, it seemed that only Mr. Stokes had wide appeal to both blacks and whites.
White voters were overwhelmingly supporting Mr. DiBlasi, and Mr. Bell and Mrs. Hall were battling it out for black voters.