The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, the pastor of Baltimore's largest black church, announced his support yesterday for mayoral hopeful Martin O'Malley, strengthening the candidate's fight for bi-racial support.
Reid, pastor of the 14,000-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal in West Baltimore, said he believes O'Malley is the candidate to pull the city's resources together to lower crime, improve schools and redevelop city neighborhoods.
"This election is about leadership, not about race, not about gender," Reid said during a ceremony outside the church. "The mayor must have the courage to fight tough battles. The next mayor must be a unifier, not a divider. I believe that person is Martin O'Malley."
Reid's endorsement was the result of some high-level political maneuvering during the last couple of weeks.
Reid agreed to endorse O'Malley as part of a pact in which State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings publicly backed Sheila Dixon for City Council president.
Sources familiar with the deal say it was prompted by O'Malley strategists, who believed the leading white candidate needed a big-name endorsement as a way to bring much needed African-American support to his campaign.
With the two strong African-American candidates and the tough white challenger, crossover voters appear to be the bloc that is likely to determine the city's next mayor. And Reid's support yesterday and the timing of it -- a week before Tuesday's primary -- was widely seen as crucial for O'Malley.
"It's big medicine for O'Malley," said Herbert C. Smith, political science professor at Western Maryland College. "The election is going to come down to the crossover vote and anything like [Reid's endorsement] helps O'Malley."
Linneal Henderson, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy, agreed. "I think it's going to give O'Malley a very significant boost," Henderson said.
Some congregants concerned
Reid's endorsement troubled some members of his congregation who said they wished he had made the announcement somewhere other than at the church to make a clear distinction that it was his personal decision.
"Pastor Reid leads us spiritually, he does not lead us politically," said Louis Fields, a member of Bethel AME, who attended the endorsement but is supporting City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III's mayoral bid. "I would have preferred he made this announcement from his home, not in front of the church."
Larnell Custis Butler, 57, of West Baltimore, called the church yesterday prior to the announcement to register her complaint of Reid's intent of backing a white candidate.
"The Book of Proverbs says 'Remember the landmarks of your father,' " said Butler, who moved to Baltimore from South Carolina last year and is not a member of the congregation. "We have black middle-class people not remembering."
But other Bethel congregation members noted that Reid, who has been active in city politics and ran for Congress in 1996 against U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, made it clear that the endorsement was his personal choice.
"He goes to great lengths to distinguish that it is his personal endorsement," said church member John Taylor. "He reserves the right for us to make up our own mind."
Even so, Reid's endorsement clearly had an impact on candidates, voters and political observers throughout the city.
One of O'Malley's top contenders, former councilman and school board member Carl Stokes, tried to downplay the impact that Reid's endorsement would have on the election.
Stokes said he believes he has the strongest ministerial support with backing from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of 200 mostly African-American pastors, and the Clergy United in the Revitalization of East Baltimore (CURE), which has 272 churches, headed by Stokes' childhood friend, Rev. Melvin Tuggle II.
"It's one guy vs. 400," said Stokes, who picked up an endorsement yesterday from the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, which represents about 400 African-American firefighters in Baltimore.
But some political leaders thought Reid's support was significant enough to the O'Malley campaign that they worked feverishly over the past couple of weeks to win it.
It appears that Reid, the half-brother of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, was looking for support for his choice for council president, Councilwoman Dixon, who is Reid's long-time friend and a member of his church.
Dixon is in a tough contest against candidates Nathan Irby and Frank Conaway. O'Malley supporters began discussing ways to back Dixon, which included endorsements from Schaefer and Rawlings, in exchange for Reid's support for O'Malley, sources familiar with the negotiations said.
With Reid's endorsement of O'Malley and with Schaefer's and Rawlings' support of Dixon, neither of the candidates had to endorse the other or form a ticket which could have alienated their current supporters.
The most unusual part of the political agreement was Schaefer's endorsement of Dixon, who has been a part of Schmoke's political machine. Schmoke, who has been at odds with Schaefer throughout his 12-year tenure as mayor, also has endorsed Dixon's candidacy.
"I won't hold that against her," Schaefer said. "His era is over."
Sun staff writer Laura Lippman contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 9/08/99