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Ballot Stuffing

He Said, She Said

Posted 8/7/2002

With cries of "C-4!" and "We want Verna!" the tit-for-tat caterwauling coming from opposing political camps that gathered July 30 at the Bread of Life Center downtown was deafening. State Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV had come to square off against one-term Del. Verna Jones, who is challenging him for his 44th District Senate seat.

The two candidates offered a stark contrast: Jones, at least early on, radiated a rather genteel charm; Mitchell was full-on fight-the-power straight out of the gate, tilting against anyone who doubts his clout in the state capital. Politically, Jones is still a newbie, winning her seat in 1998 with a lot of potential but little experience (See "The Freshman Five," page 20). Mitchell has been in Annapolis for eight years (four each in the House and Senate), and, as he likes to remind voters--frequently--he hails from a family of political leaders that goes back decades.

That said, if anyone among the 150 or so people who turned out for the debate was itching to see a fight, they were no doubt disappointed by the civility both candidates displayed--although the evening did have its moments. State senator-turned-radio host Larry Young, moderator of the WOLB (1010 AM)-sponsored debate, told the crowd that he would call the shots and that anyone who got "out of line" would get the boot. Later, two young men who challenged Young's fairness in taking questions from the audience (which were kept to a minimum) were, in fact, thrown out--one man was literally shoved outside by a group of onlookers.

Those who managed to keep themselves in check listened intently for two hours as media folks such as Keith Reed of the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Times co-publisher Anthony McCarthy (himself a former candidate for state delegate and City Council) fired questions at Mitchell and Jones. Highlights included queries about trustworthiness, legislative records, and--one that really stirred the crowd--loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Jones, frequently adopting the sport-star style of referring to oneself in the third person, told the crowd that "Verna Jones is consistent in what she does, who she is, what she fights for," adding, for good measure, that "Verna Jones is about the community, not Verna Jones." She said she fought hard to help pass the Thornton Commission recommendations, which will pump millions of dollars into city schools over the next five years. (While Jones did serve for a while on Gov. Parris Glendening's Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, she is not listed as a sponsor of the legislation.) She also indicated that she's in Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's good graces so, should Townsend become governor, Jones can "leverage power" and bring home the bacon to the 44th.

For his part, Mitchell refused to apologize for actions that made him the subject of an investigation earlier this year by the State Ethics Commission. At issue was Mitchell's acceptance of a $10,000 personal loan from a bus-company owner and a bail bondsperson and subsequent sponsoring of legislation affecting those industries. In July, state prosecutors cleared Mitchell of any wrongdoing. Before the "congregation," Mitchell pronounced himself trustworthy, and tossed in a jab at The Sun for its bulldog coverage of the matter.

Mitchell also discussed boosting business for minority contractors and increasing economic development by way of tourism. As to his threats earlier in the year to bolt the Democratic Party and endorsement of Republican Robert Ehrlich for governor, the senator explained to the "brothers and sisters" in the crowd his version of party loyalty.

"Demand what you want!" he said, accusing liberal Democrats (read: Gov. Parris Glendening, with whom Mitchell has a fractured relationship) of taking black votes without taking on black causes. "Don't be a slave again."

By the end of the evening, Mitchell and Jones had postured themselves into a literal sweat, exacerbated by the fact that the meeting space wasn't air conditioned. (Jones' handlers actually stepped forward to swab her forehead a couple of times during the debate.) Both candidates managed to say a lot without saying much--which, as political debates go, made the evening a success, according to many observers in the crowd.

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