Tenderfoot comptroller Joan Pratt: Newcomer has much to learn about City Hall terrain.


SO MUCH ATTENTION was placed on what was expected to be a close mayoral race that the public doesn't seem to have fully absorbed what happened in the comptroller's election. Joan Pratt's victory in the Democratic primary is significant not just because a novice beat a wily veteran with 32 years of political experience. It's significant because it means a tenderfoot will likely have to traverse some of the most politically treacherous terrain this side of the Patapsco River.

With the ambitious Lawrence Bell having won the primary election for City Council president, Baltimore can expect him to focus his sights squarely on becoming this city's next mayor. The council has already signaled it won't go out of its way to help Mr. Bell. The African-American Coalition didn't even invite him to its party for primary winners. Mr. Bell may decide the Board of Estimates should be used more frequently to spotlight the differences between himself and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

As a member of the board, Ms. Pratt could be caught in the cross-fire. But it's important to note that she might be firing a few shots herself. A woman who was reluctant to run for any political office has been convinced by her primary victory that she, too, could be mayor. It's hard to argue with success. But before Ms. Pratt gets too caught up in speculation about 1999, she must face some realities right now.

One of them concerns the role of the person who masterminded her primary victory, campaign manager Julius Henson. Allegations by the Afro-American that he attempted to gain that newspaper's editorial endorsement through strong-arm tactics are disconcerting, even with his denial. And Mr. Henson's tendency to want to speak for Ms. Pratt makes her appear weak. She would be better served relegating him to future political campaigns and not placing him in the comptroller's office where people will question who is really in charge.

Ms. Pratt says she is seeking legal advice on whether she should retain ownership of her accounting firm, which has some clients that also do business with the city. It's not just a legal question, though. It's a matter of perception. After the conviction of former Comptroller Jackie McLean, the next comptroller should steer clear of even a hint of self-interest. Ms. Pratt's new job is a demanding one; there is no time to run an accounting firm on the side.

The Democratic nominee has the potential to be a good comptroller, but she must keep her sights on the task at hand and avoid enticements aimed at securing her political or professional future.

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