Bell's strategy against Henson polarizes council


One day after City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III tried to quash Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's choice for housing commissioner, council members and political observers debated whether Mr. Bell's maneuver was a deft political move or clumsy bridge-burning.

"It was masterful," former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said yesterday. "I am proud that without the votes he managed to send a strong signal of displeasure to the mayor."

But state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and former councilman, characterized Mr. Bell as a spoiled child and said: "If you don't have your way, you don't blow up the playground. This was an attempt to show up the mayor."

Monday night's council meeting erupted when Mr. Bell stacked an initial vote against Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, a mayoral appointee since 1993. Screaming matches broke out on the council floor when members realized that Mr. Bell had called a quick vote before many of the mayor's supporters were present.

Though pro-mayor council members eventually outmaneuvered Mr. Bell and his allies and voted 12-7 in favor of Mr. Henson, the council was split into two factions. Now political observers and council members are divided on what may become a defining moment for Mr. Bell's relationship with Mr. Schmoke.

Those who support Mr. Bell said he is sending a message that he will try to create a council that will stand up to the mayor.

But Mr. Bell's critics said that if he continues such tactics he will irrevocably harm the city by creating an unproductive form of governing. They also criticized him as going back on his word to forge a new relationship with the mayor.

"I think [Mr. Bell] did burn some bridges," said 4th District Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who was out of the chambers when the first vote was called. "He would have looked great had he pulled it off, but the day after he doesn't look all that great."

Fifth District Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who was also out of the chambers when the first vote was called, said that she has lost some trust in Mr. Bell.

"I gave him more credit," Mrs. Holton said.

Mr. McFadden, a supporter of Mr. Henson, said the issue went beyond just the reconfirmation of the housing commissioner. He said that Mr. Bell is lending credence to detractors who say that having blacks heading city government is bound to fail.

Former Councilman Carl Stokes, who last year lost to Mr. Bell in the race for the council presidency, praised Mr. Bell's move. But he cautioned that Mr. Bell is risking alienating some of the newer council members.

"He may have torn his skirt with people who just got on board with him," Mr. Stokes said.

Political analyst Herbert C. Smith said Mr. Bell is working to cast himself as an independent council president. Mr. Smith said that even though Mr. Bell did not unseat Mr. Henson, he nevertheless was a winner.

"It was still a shot across the bow of the mayor," said Mr. Smith, a professor of political science at Western Maryland College.

Said Mr. Stokes: "There is no such thing as fair and unfair in politics. There is only one rule -- win."

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