Josh Kurtz: On the Road With Julius Henson

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By: Josh Kurtz 

The sidewalk in front of Julius Henson’s home on North Decker Avenue in East Baltimore is a beehive of activity.

It’s late Saturday afternoon, and the savvy, controversial political consultant who’s turned into a savvy, controversial candidate for state Senate, is directing volunteers of all ages as they prepare for a district-wide car caravan. No detail is too small for a man who has mastered the art and science of political combat.

“It’s windy,” he says, gesturing to the balloons and campaign signs plastered all over the cars and mini-vans. “Make sure everything’s secure.”

Minutes later, the nine vehicles set off, with Henson in the lead, honking their way through busy thoroughfares and narrow residential streets, through parkland and shopping center parking lots. From the looks of things, Henson’s forces, who have dropped at least 7,000 pieces of literature that day alone, have already hit many of the streets that the caravan is snaking through.

For some people, the noisy, slow-moving motorcade is a major irritant.

“SHUUUUTTT UUUUPPP!!!” someone yells early on during the trip, from a second-floor window. But moments later, a middle-aged white man with a pony tail standing in front of a pickup truck whirls around and gives the old black power salute. “He’s a good man,” the white guy yells.

Later, a man working on his roof stands up as he sees the motorcade going by. “Yeah, Henson!” he says. Someone else, seeing the campaign sign with Henson’s dreadlocked silhouette, yells “George Clinton for president!”

Irritant or not, everyone runs to their doors or windows or stoops to see what the commotion is all about. And Julius Henson wouldn’t have it any other way.

His aim is nothing less than the political destruction in the June 24 Democratic primary of Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who has spent 20 years in the Senate, where he’s now technically the No. 2 in the chamber through the largely ceremonial title of president pro tem. This is McFadden’s first tough race since he was first elected in 1994, and Henson believes he possesses the campaign know-how and penchant for guerilla tactics to topple the long-time incumbent.

“I don’t think they’ve ever campaigned against anyone who knows what he’s doing,” he says in an interview.

McFadden is not without assets in this race, however. He’s an affable man with the powers of incumbency. In addition to his time in Annapolis, he’s a former teacher and school administrator who served on the Baltimore City Council and has a record of civic activities that’s a mile long.

He has a long association with the Eastside Democratic Organization, the dominant political club in East Baltimore for decades. Marie Washington, a seasoned organizer who runs one of the district’s big community service organizations, is helming his campaign. And he’ll have the political firepower of Senate President Mike Miller (D) behind him.

Henson, who never met an authority figure he wouldn’t thumb his nose at – even as he’s helped elect more than a few through the years – is, naturally, dismissive.

“Miller and McFadden – they have a lot of power in Annapolis, but they don’t have any power in Bel Air and Edison,” he says, ticking off neighborhoods in the district. “Their power is neutralized when they come here.”

Of Washington, he says, “Bless her heart. She’s done this. But she’s never won a competitive race.”

Henson’s main piece of literature carries a dozen grievances about McFadden’s tenure. He sums it up this way: the neighborhood has more murders and shootings and juvenile arrests than any other in the city. The median annual income is $26,000. Unemployment is high. Health problems are rampant. Students’ college readiness level stands at 1.7 percent. It’s time for a change.

“If he’s the No. 2 guy [in the Senate], why is there so much disparity in our neighborhood?” Henson asks.

Henson was inadvertently given a gift last week when, according to Maryland Reporter, Senate Budget and Taxation Chairman Ed Kasemeyer (D) told a business group that he has been able to persuade McFadden to vote against “combined reporting” for corporate taxes, a position favored by most liberals – including, evidently, McFadden. Henson is sure to exploit that.

And Henson is prepared to pounce even further with a forthcoming piece of literature that says McFadden doesn’t even live in the district. Although the senator remains registered there – in Henson’s precinct, in fact – he is currently living in a condo in Cross Keys. McFadden, who is 67 and needs a cane to move around, has told associates that he lives there because he needs to be in a building with an elevator. McFadden can thank the so-called Clarence Blount Rule, ratified by a state court years ago, for permitting him to run and serve where he no longer lives.

Henson believes that most incumbent-challenger races begin as 65 percent-35 percent affairs. Competent, hard-working challengers can cut the deficit to 55-45. The best challengers figure out how to win.

“I think I can get 6 points,” Henson boasts. He predicts turnout in the primary will be around 17 percent – a universe of only about 8,000 voters.

In order to get those 6 points, Henson will have to address the biggest controversy of the many in his long career as a strategist – masterminding the 2010 Election Day robocalls on behalf of former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) that went to African-American households telling them to “relax” because the election was well in hand for Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Attempting to suppress the African-American vote – that will resonate in a heavily black district.

But Henson answers in technicalities, calling the court verdict against him “inconsistent,” saying the rules for campaign authority lines differ for electronic communications than they do for print literature. He says that voters seem more aware that Paul Schurick, the white Ehrlich adviser who was also convicted for the robocalls in a separate trial, did not do time, in contrast to the 60 days Henson served in jail.

“The people, both black and white, rich and poor, say, ‘Schurick was found guilty and he went home and watched TV. What’s up with that?’”

Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Henson’s Senate candidacy represented a parole violation – but he didn’t order him removed from the ballot. Still, there was enough uncertainty that Henson is organizing the car caravans in part to remind voters that he is in fact still running. It’s earlier in the campaign cycle than he’d usually do it, he says, but “it’s mobile and it’s fast.”

Beyond that, Henson believes his campaign is going according to plan – and he’s famous for planning every detail. Asked the difference between being a strategist and being the principal, Henson tells a story about getting a call from someone recently who was mad that a campaign flier wound up on his windshield.

Ordinarily, Henson says, he’d be inclined to respond, “Don’t vote for my guy – I don’t care.” But now, “I have to accept the criticism and anger and not say anything. I have to say, ‘What can I do to fix your problem?’”

After all, he continues, “When I get elected, I got to serve everyone.”

Henson is not beyond imagining himself in Annapolis, either. He says he’ll vote against another term for Miller as Senate president: “Day One, I’m trying to get someone else in there.”

He smiles contemplating being an irritant to Miller. “That’ll be delightful,” he says, insisting that his beef with Miller is institutional, “not personal.” Then he grows serious.

“Standing up is contagious,” he says. “I think that, this may sound terrible, black people and white people will get off the plantation.”

Julius Henson may be crazy. He may be crazy like a fox. But it’s easy to see how Nathaniel McFadden may just be the most vulnerable state senator in next month’s Democratic primaries

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.