The Cos comes to town for mayoral challenger

In one corner of town, there was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, throwing a cocktail party at the Hippodrome Theatre.

And in the other, challenger Otis Rolley III was making his political debut arm-in-arm with Bill Cosby, who had come to town solely to support the former planning director in his bid for mayor.

Just blocks away from each other, in equally opulent settings, the title-holder and a top contender went head-to-head Tuesday night in the first serious battle of cash and clout of the mayoral campaign.

The presence of Cosby, an iconic face even years after he stopped taping "The Cosby Show" and Pudding Pops commercials, elevated what might have been a lopsided fundraising contest between a political heavyweight and a relative unknown into an interesting bout — and for some, a bit of conflict over how they'd spend their evening, if not their campaign dollars.

"I've heard people say, 'I want to come but I'm scared,' or that 'You have to understand they control everything, blah, blah, blah.' I get it," Rolley said. "A lot of politicians might be at her event, but the people that matter, the people, will be at ours."

There was little doubt about who was attending Rawlings-Blake's shindig. Her invitation came with the biggest of local names engraved right onto it. Elected officials. Developers. Entrepreneurs. Socialites. Even Gov. Martin O'Malley planned to make an appearance.

The movers and shakers at Rolley's event boiled down to one name — the one that begins with a "C" and ends with an "osby." Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill and longtime 92 Q disc jockey Marc Clarke turned up on the undercard.

Camp Rawlings-Blake expressed little concern over the opponent's celebrity get.

"You saw the invitation — over 100 names of leaders in the community … people who live in Baltimore who care about the future of Baltimore," said Colleen Martin-Lauer, Rawlings-Blake's fundraising consultant. "We didn't need to bring in a celebrity."

Rawlings-Blake has held the mayoral gavel for about a year now, after stepping into the role when Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned abruptly amid scandal. The 40-year-old, the daughter of kingmaking Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, plans to defend her claim on the office in this fall's election. Of her likely challengers, Rolley, who's 36, is the first to form a campaign organization and try aggressively to raise money.

Frank M. Conaway Sr., the clerk of the Circuit Court, has announced plans to run, too. Councilman Carl Stokes, former Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers and car salesman Scott Donahoo have mentioned interest in joining the race, and state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh is believed to be considering it. There's also been much speculation about the intentions of Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and past president of the NAACP.

Rolley, who was the city's planning director under Mayor O'Malley and chief of staff to Dixon, was calling his event at The Tremont Grand hotel "The 1/11/11 Event." Tickets to the performance by Cosby went for $75 — but the cost jumped to $500 to get into a reception, and then $4,000 to also have dinner with Rolley and the star.

At the hotel, close to 300 people gathered in an ornate meeting room for Cosby's performance. A smaller number gathered earlier for a reception and dinner with the star.

Some of the crowd was there strictly for the comedy, including Corinne Hamblet, 25, a Johns Hopkins University grad student who said she remembers listening to tapes of Cosby's routines on cross-country trips as a kid.

But there were also avid Rolley supporters, including Tonya and Howard McLain of Woodlawn, who attend Huber Memorial Church with the candidate.

"Baltimore deserves a mayor like Otis because he is a man of integrity, honesty and sincerity, and he genuinely cares about people," said Howard McLain, 43.

Cosby held a 15-minute news conference before the show, answering questions from members of the media.

The first question: "Why Otis? Why now?"

"You know what? I really hate that," the actor replied. "'Why Otis? Why now?' What does that question mean? As opposed to what? Coca-Cola?"

He later said that he respected Rolley's ability to rise from a poor childhood and his willingness to make tough but unpopular choices for the city.

Rawlings-Blake's Hippodrome party was equally pricey, with VIP time with the mayor setting supporters back $4,000, and other tickets going for $500 and $1,000.

Some of the city's biggest names in politics and business mingled at the party Tuesday night — Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Rep. Elijah Cummings and First Mariner Bank president Ed Hale, to name a few. They stood shoulder to shoulder, nibbling brie, crab cakes and filet mignon sliders, sipping cocktails and pinning campaign stickers to their lapels.

In one corner, Rawlings-Blake, who wore an iridescent violet suit, posed for photos with supporters, murmuring thank-yous into their ears before greeting the next up in a long line.

The mayor raised more than $600,000 at the fundraiser, according to spokesman Ryan O'Doherty.

Political watchers speculated that Cosby's endorsement would infuse Rolley's campaign with a sense of gravitas — and certainly wouldn't hurt its war chest.

They weren't sure, however, if enlisting The Cos — who has also promised to come back to town to help Rolley with door-to-door campaigning — could bring the candidate voters.

"It probably will draw some people out and raise more money," said longtime lobbyist and noted political soiree-hopper Bruce Bereano. "But it does not translate in any way, shape, or form to electability.

"Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has the support of the governor and of Congressman Elijah Cummings. It's nice to have Bill Cosby, but in a choice between him and O'Malley and Cummings, I'd rather have O'Malley and Cummings."

Developer Pat Turner, who has worked with both Rolley and Rawlings-Blake, put it even more simply: "Otis is a very smart guy. If he was running and not Stephanie, we would certainly be supporting him."

Turner planned to spend Tuesday evening at the Hippodrome, with one of Rawlings-Blake's $4,000 VIP tickets in hand.

Bereano doubted Cosby would have much impact on the race.

"Bill Cosby goes back to California, back to Hollywood. He's not going to be in Baltimore," the lobbyist said.

Rolley argued that Cosby's message of black empowerment is something Baltimore can relate to.

He met Cosby through a City Hall colleague who brought the comedian to Baltimore for a town hall meeting in 2004. They hit it off over a telephone call that was supposed to be 20 minutes but stretched to double that.

"He spoke to me about his life and how he came up," Cosby recently told Sun columnist Laura Vozzella. "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."

Rolley said Cosby provides him with a chance to introduce himself to potential voters who might never have given him a second look, and an opportunity to make a splash against an incumbent whom a lot of folks are calling a sure thing.

"People have told me, 'You can't win this. You're not from a political family.' I'm not rich enough. I'm not black enough. All kinds of crazy nonsense," he said. "At the end of the day, what matters is who votes."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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