Democrat Pratt looks ahead in re-election bid; Comptroller likely to run for mayor in '03; foe says he expects to lose race


Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt is so confident about re-election that she isn't raising much money or spending much time campaigning; and she's even thinking she should have run for mayor.

The $60,460 she raised through Aug. 10 was a third of what she collected during the same period of the 1995 campaign, her first bid for public office.

Even her Democratic challenger, Melvin J. Brechin, says Pratt will win. "Realistically, I have no chance of getting elected," he said. "But I'm optimistic."

Charles U. Smith, the race's only Republican, filed an affidavit saying he would not raise or spend more than $1,000. With no competitor in Tuesday's primary, he'll meet the winning Democrat in November's general election.

Pratt has become a formidable political leader by restoring public confidence in the city's third-highest post, after the corruption scandal involving former Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, political leaders and others have said.

McLean was forced out of office for scheming to steal more than $25,000 in taxpayer funds and failing to disqualify herself from a proposed city lease of her travel agency's headquarters.

Pratt quickly came under fire during her first few months in office for hiring her campaign manager and close friend Julius Henson to be the city's real estate officer. Pratt forced Henson to resign because of questions about his background.

She hired former City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge for the real estate job and has been responsible for audit reports on city agencies, including a review of police shooting statistics that prompted a citywide debate and a look at contracts in the departments of Public Works and Health.

"After a very rough start, she seems to be growing in the office," said Herbert C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor.

Although she appears to have gained respect citywide, Pratt's presence at the disruption of an endorsement for Councilman Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign raised eyebrows. Pratt has endorsed City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III for mayor.

"It's really strange that when Julius [Henson] had a rally against Eileen Rehrmann for [Gov. Parris N.] Glendening, people said it was brilliant," Pratt said. "I found it strange that a year later you get adverse publicity."

Pratt declined to talk about hiring Henson as real estate officer, saying, "I am a person that looks to the present and the future."

Pratt does talk about why she should be re-elected comptroller and considered for mayor in four years.

Pratt, 47, backed away from the contest for the city's top job in January after a poll she commissioned indicated that she might have trouble defeating Bell. That was long before revelations about Bell's financial problems.

"In hindsight, I think I could have succeeded in being the mayor," Pratt said. "I don't have any scientific data, but people stop me on the street and say, 'You know, you should have run for mayor.' "

A political novice in 1995, Pratt defeated former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides -- a 32-year General Assembly veteran -- to become Baltimore's 12th comptroller.

She won the post after going door to door and posting political signs with her picture throughout the city.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Pratt said of this campaign. "I'm just grateful to the Lord that I don't have to campaign as hard as I did four years ago."

Brechin isn't making the campaign easy. He has been firing strategic shots at Pratt, hoping to unseat her.

"I think Ms. Pratt is very sincere, but she's just not getting the job done," said Brechin, pointing to an expected $153 million deficit in the city budget. "Ms. Pratt, in her 1995 campaign, promised to get the portfolio of the city under control."

City spending is expected to exceed yearly income as property tax revenues level off because families are moving from the city. An estimated 1,000 residents leave the city each month, city housing officials have said.

Brechin said the comptroller should be a watchdog over city spending, and he criticizes Pratt for failing to ensure that the city was not overspending.

Brechin, owner of Brechin Applied Technologies, a construction management and consulting firm, said Pratt has failed to closely monitor city spending, which he said would help prevent a deficit. Brechin said the deficit could threaten the city's "A" bond rating, which helps investors determine whether Baltimore is a safe investment.

Brechin said he is not part of the city's political machinery, so he would focus on taxpayer interests rather than business interests as "the citizens' candidate."

Pratt, a certified public accountant who began her career at the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm, dismisses Brechin's assertions that she maintains the status quo. She said her office has helped save the city $30.6 million in contracts.

If Pratt retains her job, Brechin can look to seek the office again in four years. Pratt promises she won't back away from the mayoral contest then.

"I think the only way you can effect change is to be the mayor. That's my aspiration. I think the timing will be right in 2003 for an African-American female mayor."

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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