State Del. Howard P. Rawlings is pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of two Baltimore Senate candidates who, if elected, could make the already influential legislator one of the city's most powerful kingmakers.
Rawlings gave $32,000 from his political account to Del. Lisa A. Gladden's campaign for Senate in the 41st District - about a third of all her donations - and $15,000 to Del. Verna L. Jones' campaign for Senate in the 44th District. Both candidates are in tough primary races against incumbent senators.
If either candidate - or both - wins Tuesday's election, it would improve Rawlings' political relationships in the Senate, where he has sometimes been at odds with African-American city senators.
It also would increase the number of key political allies he has amassed, a list that includes Mayor Martin O'Malley, whom Rawlings endorsed over two black candidates in the 1999 mayoral race.
"Obviously, if it translates into elected officials, then they are indebted to him," Herb Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, said of Rawlings' support for Gladden and Jones. "The center of political gravity in the city will move to [Rawlings]."
Rawlings denies that he is trying to raise his political stature. He said Gladden and Jones are independent thinkers who have in the past voted against issues that were important to him, and said he does not expect any political favors for the financial support he is providing.
"What you are saying is that I cannot act out of principle," he said.
Rawlings has long criticized Jones' opponent, Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, calling him "the most despicable senator we have." More recently, Mitchell endorsed Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the race for governor, leading many in the Democratic Party to oppose his re-election.
Gladden, a first-term delegate, faces a tough fight against former Del. Frank D. Boston Jr. and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the influential chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
In both districts, the winners in Tuesday's Democratic primary for state Senate face no opposition in November.
The racially charged contest in the 41st District has become increasingly tense. African-American political leaders are urging voters to support Gladden, who is black, over Hoffman, who is white, saying a district that is 70 percent African-American should be represented by a black senator.
Rawlings said he believes Gladden is the best candidate because she is representative of the Northwest Baltimore district. He said other racial and ethnic groups have voted for people who shared their backgrounds, so no one should object to a call to support Gladden in the African-American community.
"The synagogues are telling their congregations to vote for Jewish candidates," Rawlings said.
The outcome in the district is regarded as especially important to many in the African-American community because the 41st has been represented by Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the most senior black legislator in Annapolis. He is retiring.
"We will not concede the loss of an African-American state senator," Rawlings said. "I have a moral duty to support that decision."
Sees no inconsistency
He sees no inconsistency in his support for Gladden now and his decision three years ago to back O'Malley, a white candidate in a predominantly African-American city.
Rawlings said he believed O'Malley was the best candidate for mayor so he supported him. Likewise, he said he believes Gladden can best represent the people of the 41st District, so he is supporting her over Hoffman.
His efforts have created a rift between him and Hoffman - two legislators who, because of their committee chairmanships in Annapolis, have been critical to Baltimore.
Hoffman has said she will no longer have a personal relationship with Rawlings. She said she has backed Rawlings when he was at odds with African-American senators - and won't do it again.
"At one time or another, he's made every African-American senator mad at him," Hoffman said. "I've mitigated on his behalf a great deal."
Rawlings often finds himself in tough battles - sometimes on the opposite side of the debate from other African-American opinion leaders.
Besides his support for O'Malley, Rawlings in 1997 successfully pushed for legislation giving the state a role in managing the city schools despite heated opposition from the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, prominent black Baltimore ministers and others.
During the last General Assembly session, Rawlings again found himself embroiled in debate, this time with students from Morgan State University who argued that he was delaying construction of a much needed library. Rawlings took steps to assure the project would be fully funded beginning in the next budget, but he continues to be criticized over what some see as a lack of support for the city's historically black colleges.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, pastor of the 5,000-member Empowerment Temple, is among his critics. He says Rawlings talks about concern for African-Americans while neglecting important black institutions.
"His flagrant disregard for black colleges is appalling and unnerving," Bryant said, noting that Coppin State College is in Rawlings' district and has unmet financial needs. "But it looks like he'll return," Bryant said. "He has the financial strength ... He's been able to out-spend, out-advertise anybody."
Rawlings, who with his district's two other incumbent delegates is opposed in the primary by little known candidates, has raised more than $270,000 for his campaign account. He transferred $60,000 of that to a committee he established, called the Future of Baltimore Committee Slate, which is providing support to Gladden, Jones and others. Under state law, there is no limit on the amount of money candidates can transfer from their campaign accounts to such a slate.
He campaigns vigorously for himself and the other candidates even as he battles a cancer that began in his bladder and spread to his lung.
Rawlings said he simply wants to ensure that the city maintains strong talent as it moves into the future. He said his efforts are less about him than his principles.
"It is clear that Lisa Gladden is a very accomplished and talented legislator," Rawlings said. "I've been supportive of her for four years."