Baltimore's New Caesar
Running Against One of Julius Henson's Candidates? Then He's Come to Bury You
"All right," Henson says, leaning in with a no-nonsense gaze. "Tell me what you are doing." The answer is slow in coming. Ross and Zucker hem and haw; Henson's impatience shows on his face. Finally, Zucker, an aide to U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn (D-4th District) running for Montgomery County Council, fumbles out a few words: "What we are going to do is . . ." He gets no further.
"Fuck that. Now let me tell you your schedule. You got a Metro stop? Here's what I want you to do: Metro stop from 6 to 9. From 9 to 3 I want you knocking on doors, and I want you to identify where the older people live. Return to Metro station from 4:30 to 6:30. From 7 to 9, I want you to make calls to voters."
"Yes, sir," the candidates chime obediently in stereo.
"I want you to go to apartment complexes, shopping centers, funeral homes, and do drops every night," Henson continues. "If you think it's going to rain, don't do it. On Saturday, do lit drops from 6 to 10. Then make super-voter calls from 7 to 9. On Sunday, if you all can identify churches with on-street parking--"
"Is that kosher?" Zucker interrupts.
"Yeah, yeah, lit drop," Henson fires back dismissively. "Every candidate can do that. Put them everywhere."
Within minutes, Zucker and Ross are out the door of Wynn's campaign office and back on the campaign trail, boxes of signs and leaflets in hand. As in previous Henson-run campaigns, the materials will indeed show up everywhere, despite state ordinances limiting where they can go. He is not concerned about the niceties, only the bottom line: getting his candidate elected.
This is Julius Henson in action--the Democratic powerbroker some regard as the James Carville of Baltimore (and, increasingly, Maryland) politics and others consider the Don King. He's built his reputation on a no-holds-barred style that his enemies hate, his opponents grudgingly admire, and eager unknowns embrace--especially if they want to make a quick splash on the political scene.
Henson, 53, made his name in 1995 by pulling off an improbable win for a then-unknown accountant named Joan Pratt, who shocked longtime state Sen. Julian Lapides in the race for Baltimore City comptroller. A few months later he orchestrated then-state Del. Elijah Cummings' victory against a large field in the special congressional election to succeed Kweisi Mfume. After he worked on Gov. Parris Glendening's landslide 1998 re-election, Henson seemed to have wrested the local kingmaker mantle from older Baltimore politicos like Arthur Murphy and Larry Gibson. Even his losses are spectacular--witness Lawrence Bell III's Henson-managed crash in the 1999 mayoral election. But Bell's belly flop hasn't prevented Henson from filling his dance card in this year's elections.
"Henson has a level of enthusiasm and brass knuckles that Baltimoreans are not used to," says Murphy, a former Henson mentor and his one-time protégé's adversary in the Pratt/Lapides race. "He runs an in-your-face campaign and he does an excellent job. He's by far the best. He wins the big ones."
Locally, Henson's stable includes Pratt (who was re-elected comptroller with only token opposition in 1999 and is widely considered a future mayoral hopeful); City Council member Lisa Stancil, running this year to unseat Patricia Jessamy as Baltimore state's attorney; and investment banker Oz Bengur, who is betting on Henson to help him upset Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary (Campaign Beat, July 3). And he is increasingly muscling into statewide politics, building a racially diverse client list in the populous Washington suburbs, including Zucker and Ross; five-term congressperson Wynn; Prince George's County Council candidate Tony Knotts; P.G. County Council members Tom Dernoga and M.H. Jim Estepp (a candidate for county executive); and Prince George's state's attorney hopeful Glenn Ivey.
Henson raised eyebrows last year when The Washington Post quoted him as saying that he and Wynn were taking over the Prince George's power structure: "The old guard, the people who thought they were going to call the shots, aren't calling the shots anymore. The combination of Albert Wynn and Julius Henson will rule." He now characterizes the comment as "a joke. But when I say something like that, the media is all over it."
All told, Henson says he has 14 candidates statewide currently paying for his services--a remarkably wide net of influence for a strategist who only seven years ago had no practical political experience save for a 1972 run for clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.
"He's a proven quantity," says Ivey, a smooth-talking African-American lawyer whose inside-the-(Capital) Beltway savvy seems to contrast with Henson's rough-and-tumble mien. "He knows how to get the job done. For me, he was the clear choice."
Henson's brash strategies have their detractors, and not just among those his clients have vanquished. Robert Fulton Dashiell, an attorney whose 1998 campaign for state Senate from the then-Baltimore City/County 10th District was run by Henson, not only lost but ran into a series of legal problems. First, Dashiell was cited by Baltimore County for illegal placement of campaign signs on public property (an acknowledged Henson signature). The fines in that case were eventually dropped. But Dashiell soon faced more serious charges stemming from "walking-around money"--the prohibited practice of paying people on Election Day to help roust out the vote--which, he claims, he paid due to misleading advice from Henson. The campaign was investigated by the state special prosecutor's office, which charged Dashiell with election-law violations (he pleaded guilty and was fined $500) and audited his campaign fund.
Dashiell says that he holds "no grudges against Julius. I don't criticize or condemn him." But he does chalk up his troubles to the consultant's aggressive, push-the-envelope style.
Henson dismisses his ex-client's complaints as "sour grapes."
"Was my name on [the charges]? Was I accused? I wasn't there; I didn't tell him to pay anybody," he says. "[Dashiell] said I gave him advice, but even the investigators said I wasn't in it, no way, shape, or form. He did all of that on his own. . . .
"He is a successful guy. He was used to being successful. He wasn't, and he had to blame somebody."
Henson's more pointed--and more powerful--critics include Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore City), who backed Martin O'Malley in 1999 over Henson client Bell. When Rawlings publicly announced his endorsement, he was shouted down by a mob of Bell supporters.
"[Henson] helped elect Martin O'Malley," Rawlings told The Washington Post last month. "Like war, politics is not a genteel game, but there are rules of engagement, and Julius violates them. He likes to be in your face. In that case, it backfired."
Henson makes no apologies. He notes that the year before he was blasted for orchestrating the anti-O'Malley demonstration he was praised for his acumen in doing the same on behalf of Glendening during then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke endorsement of the governor's Democratic rival, Eileen Rehrmann, at a City Hall rally.
"He tried it then, and it worked then," says John Hubble, who defeated Henson in the 1972 Circuit Court clerk race. "Henson absolutely gets no fair shake. If he sneezes, The Sun gives him a bad rap. The guy is clever."
Whatever backlash the Rawlings rally may have provoked at the time, Bell's failure--he entered the '99 mayoral race as front-runner and seeming heir apparent only to finish a distant third in the Democratic primary--hasn't dented Henson's winning image. "Bell's candidacy self-destructed," Murphy says. "When that happens, there is nothing you can do. Sometimes you pick the wrong horse. Lawrence couldn't handle it."
Henson's own career ups and downs are something of a mystery, at least publicly. After his 1972 loss to Hubble, he dropped off the political radar screen. A search of the Lexis-Nexis press database turns up no mention of him until the 1995 Pratt campaign. He speaks in generalities about what he did during that time, saying he worked in real estate and construction and ran a printing business but not offering details. In 1996, amid controversy over Pratt's short-lived appointment of Henson as the city's real-estate officer, The Sun reported that two Henson résumés it obtained from Pratt's office listed a real-estate company called Wild Geese and another firm called Henson Development Associates but gave differing dates for when he ran them. (The paper also reported that no company called Henson Development Associates is listed in state incorporation records.) Both résumés stated that Henson earned a degree from Morgan State University, but school officials told The Sun he had not received a diploma (although he did complete course work) due to an unpaid bill.
Whatever he was doing in those 20-odd years, Henson says a return to politics was long on his mind. "I have a genuine concern for my community," he says. "I wanted to make a difference."
He found his ticket in advising the campaign of then-girlfriend Pratt. "I waited for the right person to run. It just happened that I was involved with her," he says. "My role as architect of the campaign was not just strategy, but what are the issues and how do you form ideas that resonate."
Lapides, a seven-term state senator from Bolton Hill with a reputation as the General Assembly's fiscal watchdog, relied on direct mail and TV ads. The unknown Pratt campaigned on the phone and on the streets, deploying what would become the key elements in Henson's political playbook. The newcomer secured The Sun's endorsement and handily won the Democratic primary.
"I was surprised. I didn't see how she had any shot," recalls Arthur Murphy, who advised Lapides. "I out-[fund-]raised them, I out-promoted them, we took polls every month. One month out, we were beating her 2-1."
Shortly after taking office, Pratt appointed Henson to manage the city's real-estate portfolio, which includes 350 properties valued collectively at more than $3 billion. He lasted three weeks, resigning in the wake of reports about code violations at buildings he and Pratt owned jointly, unpaid bills, and the inaccuracies on his résumé.
Since then, Henson has displayed an ability to give as well as he got. Last fall Baltimore lawyer Warren Brown pulled the plug on his candidacy for Baltimore state's attorney after Henson went to the media with salacious details about Brown's marital, financial, and professional lives. Subsequent press inquiries turned up twins Brown had fathered with his ex-wife's niece; years-old liens on Brown-owned properties for unpaid taxes; and a Maryland Court of Appeals reprimand of Brown and a former law partner for improperly administering a client's escrow account and permitting a secretary to handle personal-injury cases without supervision.
"That's the way the game is played," Henson says. "If it's in the public domain, we use it." And not surprisingly, he predicts that his version of the game will get 14 people elected this year--even if it means plastering illegal campaign signs all over Maryland.
"The people who made that rule are the ones in office, and they want us to follow rules that benefit them," he says. "Fuck that. I'm not going to play their game."
News & politics writer Van Smith contributed to this story.
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