Maryland political candidates seek second chance

Julius Henson is confident his story will end on a high note.

“Who goes to jail and comes back and wins a Senate seat?” the former longtime political consultant said.

Henson, 64, believes he will. Enough residents believe he got a raw deal when he was sentenced to a month in jail for his role in a robocall that went out on Election Day in November 2010, he said.

And there are enough problems in the state’s 45th District, currently represented by Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, for him to oust the incumbent, he added. He rattled off a list of the district’s ills, which included unemployment, crime and addiction. 

“That’s why I’m running,” he said.

The political world is full of second chances – and those who want one. Henson is one of two fallen politicos who filed to run for a seat in the state legislature last month, despite a judge’s ruling that his candidacy violates his probation .

SEE MORE: Henson back in court

Del. Tiffany Alston, the Prince George’s County Democrat removed from office in 2012 after being convicted of theft and misconduct, wants her old seat back. Alston, charged with stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an employee of her law firm , had her record cleared as a result of a plea deal.

SEE MORE: Alston indicted on theft charges

She declined to be interviewed for this story.

“This is America. It’s democracy. People have a right to run for office, and voters will decide,” said Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist who served time in the 1990s for fraudulently billing clients $600.

Bereano, one of the state’s most highly paid lobbyists, laughs when asked about his own comeback.

“Like rising from the ashes, right?” he said. “You learn a good deal about yourself … You don’t become bitter. You take one day at a time.”

Henson was convicted in 2012 of violating election laws by not including an authority line on the robocall that told African-American voters to “relax” and stay home because Gov. Martin O’Malley was winning the general election. 

Now president of the Berea Community Association in East Baltimore, Henson said he’ll use his background as a skilled political operative to win the election and saturate the district with his name.

“It’s all good publicity,” he said.

“It’s in my blood”

Former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold says he hears from his former constituents every day who remember his work as county executive and state delegate.

They tell him they’d like to see him back in office someday, said the Pasadena resident, who resigned as county executive last year after being convicted of official misconduct.

“That’s what’s most meaningful to me,” he said.

But it’s unknown whether he’ll get the chance to run again. 

After finding Leopold guilty of ordering his police officers to empty his catheter bag and do campaign work on his behalf, retired Circuit Court Judge Dennis Sweeney sentenced Leopold to 60 days in jail , plus fines, community service and five years’ probation.

SEE MORE: Leopold sentenced to jail

Leopold was banned from running for office throughout his probation. But he’s appealing his conviction and asking the Court of Special Appeals to strike that provision from his sentence.

The court hasn’t ruled yet. The filing deadline for state office was last month, meaning Leopold has to wait another four years if he wants to run for his old seat or another state seat.

The 71-year-old was known for a bare bones campaign that involved standing on street corners holding a red sign with just his name.

“That whole model depends on him being physically able,” said Dan Nataf, a professor of political science at Anne Arundel Community College and director of its Center for the Study of Local Issues.

It’s also hard to say if voters will be receptive, Nataf said. He said if Leopold wants to re-launch his political career, he’s likely going to have to focus on his two decades in the General Assembly before he was county executive.

“The comeback is proportional to the downfall,” Nataf said.

While declining to talk about his criminal case, Leopold pointed out the courts ruled in his favor in four separate civil suits filed against him, something that should carry weight with potential voters.

He said he still follows federal, state and local issues closely and tries to help former constituents who are trying to navigate the bureaucracy of government. He admits it can be frustrating not to be more involved and is hopeful that will change in the future.

 “It’s in my blood,” he said.

When Sweeney sentenced Leopold, he drew comparisons to another ex-politician – former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon.

SEE RELATED: Republicans see gains in Dundalk race

Sweeney presided over Dixon’s 2009 misconduct trial. She resigned from office in early 2010 after being found guilty of stealing gift cards meant for needy families. She is no longer on probation, clearing the way for her to run for office next year.

Dixon’s comparatively light sentence didn’t send a strong enough message, Sweeney said, though

he didn’t mention her by name.

Dixon declined to be interviewed for this story, but said people ask her “all the time” about her future plans.

No solid formula

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said there’s no recipe for a successful political comeback.

“There just doesn’t seem to be a common mix of ingredients,” said Eberly, who studies Maryland politics. “If there was someone who could figure that out, they’d be the most well-paid political consultant in the state.”

But politicians who rebound from a scandal tend to be the ones with a loyal base of supporters, Eberly said. 

One of the best examples of that, he said, is former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry. Barry served time in federal prison in the early 1990s after being caught smoking crack. He was ultimately re-elected mayor, then elected to the City Council. 

“There were a group of people who were going to forgive him no matter what,” Eberly said.

Still, voters also want to feel like the politician learned something from the debacle, or is at least sorry for what happened, Eberly said.  

Henson has only run for office once before, in the mid-1970s. Enticed by the $25,000 a year salary, he ran for clerk of the Circuit Court and lost. He became a political consultant after that and estimates he’s helped win hundreds of races and made millions.

Though he says his conviction was unfair and maintains he was just following the orders of the Ehrlich campaign, Henson said some good came out of the situation. He got closer to God, he said, and had time for personal reflection.

“It’s a good deal,” he said.

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