Lawrence Bell was doing fine, smiling, looking right into the camera, offering imaginative proposals for his first term as mayor of Baltimore. He said he'd create a Government Efficiency Hotline, get police officers to volunteer 10 hours each to "jump-start" a new effort against crime, renew the city's dollar-house rehabilitation program. It was good stuff.
And then he pulled the Crown Central Petroleum card.
There it was again -- on live television, about 8: 45 p.m.
During last night's debate involving the three main Democratic candidates for mayor, Bell turned to Martin O'Malley, the white man in the group, and asked, again, about O'Malley's defense of his position regarding Crown Central.
Let's go over this, again, and briefly.
A few years ago, Baltimore-based Crown Central was accused of racism and sexism during and after a labor dispute at its plant in Texas. The Baltimore City Council passed a resolution last year denouncing Crown for this. O'Malley did not endorse the measure because, he said, Crown should have been accorded a chance to respond to the accusations at a council hearing.
In last week's televised debate on WBAL-TV, Bell played the Crown card. He waved it in O'Malley's face, and O'Malley quickly and deftly stated his position on the matter.
The next day, Crown officials noted hypocrisy in Bell's position. They told The Sun that, several months after criticizing the company, Bell knocked on the owner's door and asked Henry A. Rosenberg for a campaign contribution.
Bell denied that. He said that as City Council president, he had a duty to visit local business leaders. He said he "never directly" solicited contributions from Rosenberg.
The accusation of hypocrisy obviously didn't bother Bell. He apparently decided there was too much to gain from playing the Crown card again.
So, last night, when he had the chance, he pulled it out and waved it at O'Malley for the second time on live television.
O'Malley, his eyes fixed hard on Bell, shot back pointedly: "Don't you get tired of this?"
O'Malley said he was tired of Bell's innuendo and accusations of racism.
And then he said something that cut right to the guts of the whole matter: "You never called me a racist all the years we worked together."
Right. They were buddies in City Council, the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin. Martin O'Malley became an insensitive white guy only when he presumed he could be mayor, a position Lawrence Bell had assumed he'd have in a cake walk (as long as Kweisi Mfume didn't run).
Warnings have been going up for weeks: Watch Bell. As his poll numbers sink, as his campaign staff continues to do stupid things, he'll become increasingly nasty. He'll go for the throat. He showed the tendency during last week's debate. Last night, on WMAR-TV, he went for O'Malley again.
I'm inclined to call it pathetic, except that I understand it for what it is: desperation.
Too bad for Bell. He had been scoring points all night.
Asked about fighting drugs, he said he'd take the "holistic" approach, getting tough on dealers while offering treatment to addicts. To keep the city clean, he offered his hot-line idea. He said that, in his endorsement deal with the Fraternal Order of Police, he would get police officers to volunteer their time for a fresh start fighting crime. He said he would expand after-school programs for kids. He proposed a Schaefer-esque dollar-house effort and a rezoning of the entire city. He sounded smart and positive.
All three candidates did.
Carl Stokes wants to hand out brooms to inspire Baltimoreans to keep their sidewalks and alleys clean. He wants to reduce the size of classes in the public schools. He wants to put money into recreation centers again. He wants to stop the demolition of city rowhouses unless there's a long-range plan for land use. He wants to teach young people how to rehabilitate old houses that they might eventually own.
O'Malley actually spoke of making Baltimore "the greatest city in America." He spoke of getting businesses to invest billions, not mere millions, within the city limits. He said the sight of trash would make him angry. He said he wants to bring a sense of urgency to fight against crime and the erosion of the city's population. He said he wants to get more state funds for early learning and for mandatory summer school for kids who do not read satisfactorily by third grade.
All good stuff.
A debate of the issues.
A forum of big ideas.
A sense of future.
There were moments when this city resident actually got confused again about which man would make the best mayor.
All three sounded good.
Until about 8: 45, that is.