As a top contender for the mayor's job backed away from the race yesterday, Baltimore's public unions were poised to back the candidacy of City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, bolstering his bid for the city's top post.
City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who flirted with a run for mayor during the past two months but never officially declared, said yesterday she will seek re-election as comptroller this year. Pratt said she wants to finish work she began in her first term.
"I think with a second term as comptroller, it will prepare me to lead the city as mayor," Pratt said. "As comptroller, there's some work that I started that I want to finish."
The comptroller said she is focusing on ways to resolve a growing tax lien debt that property owners owe the city. Pratt said some property owners owe more in tax debt than their properties are worth, and she believes she can help the city recoup in her role as comptroller.
Pratt's decision couldn't occur at a better time for Bell, who has been under fire from some state lawmakers who lament the quality of the prospective candidates. The legislators have criticized the city's leadership, noting a lack of forceful action to resolve problems such as a high murder rate, crowded courts and a declining population.
Bell, who has been silent on issues such as the crisis-stricken city court system, was conspicuously absent from a meeting of city and state leaders on that issue.
Bell said he is working to build relationships and attacked state lawmakers for "petty" snipes at city leadership.
He defended his work during his four-year council presidency and said he hasn't announced his candidacy for mayor because he does not want to politicize issues the city needs to resolve.
"We had decided a long time ago to focus on the business of the council," Bell said. "I'm just trying to stick with that."
Although Bell isn't publicly campaigning, coalitions in support of his candidacy appear to be forming.
An endorsement is not solidified, but union leaders have been meeting with Bell and are voicing enthusiasm about his expected candidacy. An endorsement by city unions, which have had a strong advocate in Bell, could separate him from the pack of about a dozen others who want to be mayor.
"Certainly his name is high on our list," said Loretta Johnson, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 8,500 teachers in the city.
"He's always supported our issues. Certainly, labor can't turn their backs on people who support them," she said.
Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the Baltimore Municipal Employees Union, a division of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the public employees unions have met several times with Bell. Middleton's union includes about 6,000 city workers.
"We've had a good relationship with Lawrence Bell," Middleton said.
"He's been fair. He's done right by us."
Bell consistently has fought to protect city workers when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration moved to reduce government through job cuts or privatization. Although Middleton and Johnson stopped short of an endorsement, their vocal support is a strong indication that the Bell campaign is picking up steam.
Most believe the announcement of his plans to run for mayor is imminent.
Political observers say that mayoral candidates will need about $1 million to compete in this year's election. Bell has scheduled a March 4 fund-raiser at the Harborview Condominium and Yacht Club on the downtown waterfront -- his first major fund-raising effort of the election year. He is billing the event as "Bell for Baltimore."
State lawmakers continue to hope to draw NAACP President Kweisi Mfume or another high-profile leader into the race because of concerns that the current prospects -- including Bell -- are lacking.
For Mfume to run, the General Assembly would have to pass legislation to reduce the city's residency requirement for mayoral candidates from a year to six months, because the civil rights leader lives in Baltimore County.
On Monday night, the city's House delegation voted in favor of the residency bill, which would likely lead the legislation to passage in the House of Delegates. As a practice, the General Assembly approves legislation designed for a specific jurisdiction -- called a local bill -- if lawmakers from that area support it.
The bill is awaiting a hearing on the Senate side, but senators are voicing strong support for using the legislation to recruit the best leader to run the city.
"Our efforts down here during this session are about effective and strong leadership for the city," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation.
"The voters will ultimately decide."
Bell said he is not bothered by the bills in Annapolis.
He said he is trying to build bridges throughout Baltimore to strengthen the city, instead of attacking others.
"I just think we need to bring people together -- labor and business, black and white," Bell said. "Any citizen of Baltimore who is interested in moving the city forward into the new millennium, I'm willing to sit down and talk with."
Pub Date: 2/25/99