Daniel Henson proficient in syntax of double-talk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maybe Daniel P. Henson will tell us the truth this time around, but I doubt it. Maybe he meant it Tuesday night, when he said he would reconsider a housing policy that would shaft the poorest of the city's poor, and maybe all those angry people who gathered at Dunbar High School could go home with a little peace of mind. But maybe they shouldn't.

The housing commissioner of Baltimore has a tendency to say one thing and mean another, or say one thing in private and another in public, or simply try to rewrite dialogue as he says he remembers it.

At the meeting Tuesday night, Henson was ripped for a housing proposal that could increase the number of homeless people in Baltimore. Instead of embracing the neediest, instead of giving first choice in public housing to those living on the street, or in substandard housing, or those paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent, Henson would select tenants solely on the basis of their residency in the city and the date of their application.

This is discriminatory, he was told Tuesday night. It will lead to more homeless people, he was told, and it pits the poor against the working poor, he was told. And Henson, noting the anger in the room, said he would rethink the policy and get back to everyone.

"I've been known to change my mind," he said.

He's also been known to change the truth -- and to hope that nobody catches him.

Go back, for example, to April 17. Henson was discussing housing problems on the Marc Steiner talk show on WJHU-FM radio. A caller asked, "Why did you tell Martin O'Malley that you'd meet him in an alley when he asked you about public housing money?"

The question hearkened back to February of '96 and one of the uglier moments in modern City Hall history. Henson was there for his reconfirmation hearing. The City Council, representing the citizens of Baltimore, was there to ask him about a few problems, such as tens of thousands of vacant and rotting homes, and a waiting list of 26,000 people for public housing, and newspaper stories about a $25 million housing scandal, and housing inspectors caught in conflicts of interest, and more than a dozen people criminally convicted in various housing investigations.

And, when Councilman Martin O'Malley attempted to ask Henson about such things, and Henson ignored him, and then O'Malley tried to ask again, and Henson stiffed him again, and O'Malley tried yet another approach, what we heard was Henson gruffly declaring, "If Councilman O'Malley wants to meet me in an alley ... "

It was classic schoolyard punk tactics, and it was quickly backed up in the classic bully manner, with Henson aides lurching to their feet and hollering, "Yeah, and I'll join you in that alley."

It was awful, and it was an embarrassment to everyone in the room except, perhaps, Henson. The day after the incident, O'Malley sat in his council office and said, "He wants to meet me in an alley, can you believe it? I'm dumbfounded. It's common, ignorant and base. A threat of violence in a public forum."

Councilwoman Joan Carter Conway added, "I think [council members] are afraid of Henson. They're afraid of the political machinery." And council members such as Tony Ambridge and President Lawrence Bell echoed the sentiments.

But here was Henson, two months ago on the radio, when asked about that confrontation with O'Malley, and he told the caller:

"We were going on and on for hours and hours and Mr. O'Malley kept feigning disbelief and it just seemed to me he was being rude to everyone else who wanted to say something."

"Was it not rude and inappropriate," the radio caller named Tim asked, "for you to respond in the way that you did with that kind of intimidation?"

"Tim, you had to be there," Henson replied.

"Yes or no?" Tim asked again. "Was that not rude and intimidating?"

"You had to be there," Henson replied.

"You're talking about physically harassing a public official."

"I just suggested we could have the conversation outside, later, after everyone else had an opportunity to ask a question," Henson replied.

This is known as lying. Lying to cover ugliness, which is what Henson did a few years ago, during the last mayoral campaign, when he injected antagonistic religious remarks into a discussion of neighborhood blight, and then denied making the remarks and invented an entirely new conversation that never happened.

I tried to reach Henson yesterday and his office said he would call back. He did not. So we can all wish good luck to those folks who gathered at Dunbar High the other night, and left thinking Henson might change his mind about his latest housing notion. He might do it this time. He might tell the truth. Everybody does, now and then.

Pub Date: 6/12/97

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