Comedian, actor and Jell-O pitchman Bill Cosby comes to Baltimore next month in an unexpected role: political fundraiser.
Cosby will be the star attraction Jan. 11 at a $4,000-a-plate dinner at the Tremont Grand on North Charles Street to benefit Otis Rolley, a former city housing and planning official who is challenging Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in the Democratic primary for mayor.
There also will be a $500-a-head reception and a $75 stand-up performance.
But don't expect a laugh a minute from Cosby, who in recent years has spoken forcefully and sometimes controversially about the need for black self-reliance.
"While I'm there on the 11th, I will be very happy to take pictures with people, greet them and say hello — and with a great deal of clenched-fist seriousness about the work that has to be done," Cosby told me in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The Cos agreed to do the event, and some door-to-door campaigning with Rolley at some point, after talking with Rolley by telephone recently.
That conversation took place at the behest of Karen Miller, who worked with Rolley at City Hall in various capacities and currently serves as his fundraiser. (She was Mayor Sheila Dixon's communications director, and he was Dixon's chief of staff during her first year in office.)
Miller had arranged for Cosby to come to town twice, for a Park Heights block party in 2008 and for Black History Month in 2009, when she worked for then-Mayor Dixon.
"I really would like you to talk to this person," Miller recalled telling Cosby. "I think he's a rock star."
Cosby's reply, according to Miller: "What do you need me for if he's a rock star?"
"OK," she conceded, "he's not a rock star."
But Rolley is, she said, someone who shares Cosby's passion for "what's happening in urban cities and what's not happening."
Cosby agreed to give Rolley 20 minutes. They wound up talking for 40.
During that time, they talked about Rolley's master's degree in planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his poor childhood in Jersey City, N.J., where Rolley said he was physically and sexually abused.
"I do have a degree from MIT," Rolley recalled telling Cosby. "I also have a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks."
Cosby was impressed.
"He spoke to me about his life and how he came up," Cosby said. "For the city of Baltimore, it just appears to me that this is a young man who, no matter what comes at him, he is not going to turn away from the people."
Cosby said he was basing his endorsement in large part on Miller's recommendation. Of course, Miller vouched for Dixon, too.
Dixon "sounded good, and she showed at every function," Cosby said, calling her demise "rather sad."
The fundraiser will come at a critical time for Rolley, whose first campaign finance report is due Jan. 20.
"Word on the street is, 'Otis is good. He would be great, but there's no way he can raise money,'" Rolley said. "If I have a strong showing on the 20th, then that conversation will change."
Outraged that Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting has trademarked "hon," Baltimoreans have organized a protest (this Sunday, noon, in front of the restaurant). They've created Twitter feeds (NotCafeHon) and Facebook pages (No one owns HON, hon; 2,091 fans as of Wednesday). They've inverted their oval bumper stickers (NOH).
And one person, a reader who won't give me his name, has resorted to songwriting. He's penned "12 Days of Copyrights." I'll cut to the final stanza:
"On the twelfth day of Christmas,/Copyrighted by me/Twelve Algers Hissing/Eleven clippers shipping,/Ten beehives wigging,/Nine strippers stripping,/Eight marble steppings,/Seven houses rowing,/Six Warshton lightings,/Five beer can rings,/Four Formstones,/Three Poe poems,/Two crab cakes,/And a ditty by Francis Scott Key."