Julius Henson is a street hustler and a thug. He grew up in Lafayette Courts, one of Baltimore’s worst low-income housing projects, and completed Morgan State University’s course work but couldn’t graduate due to an unpaid bill. After a spotty career during which he sometimes lived out of his car, he found his calling in 1975 when he ran, unsuccessfully, for clerk of the court. “That’s what got me into politics,” Henson said. “I vowed to never lose another election.”
Since then he’s made millions running nearly 100 political campaigns, with a 90 percent success rate. And despite his reputation as a political hit man (he calls himself a “pure warrior”), Henson’s clients have included governors, congressmen, mayors, state lawmakers and local officials. His breakthrough win was Baltimore’s 1999 comptroller’s race, when Henson got his girlfriend, Joan Pratt, elected in a stunning upset against the establishment candidate.
Henson’s specialty is street tactics, dirty tricks, smears and whatever else works. “Henson has a level of enthusiasm and brass knuckles that Baltimoreans are not used to,” observed the late Art Murphy, one of the city’s savviest politicians. “He runs an in-your-face campaign and does an excellent job. He is by far the best; he wins the big ones.” A Henson detractor, the late Del. Pete Rawlings, put it differently: “Like war, politics is not a genteel game, but there are rules of engagement and Julius violates them.” Here’s how Henson describes his unorthodoxy: “The people who made that rule are the ones in office and they want us to follow rules that benefit them. ... I’m not going to play their game.”
Despite Henson’s unsavory tactics, a host of otherwise reputable Democrats including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Parris Glendening and Elijah Cummings put him on their campaign payrolls. But in 2010 Julius Henson made a big mistake: He hired out to Republican Bob Ehrlich’s gubernatorial comeback against Martin O’Malley.
Being a hired hit man for Democrats was one thing, but doing it for Republicans, particularly Ehrlich, was unpardonable. “What Henson did is akin to Karl Rove working to elect Democrats or James Carville flipping to the Republican side,” observed Frank DeFilippo, dean of Maryland’s political pundits. And for his unpardonable sin Henson paid a steep price.
Not surprisingly, it was Henson who came up with the Ehrlich campaign’s infamous last-minute robocall message advising 112,000 Baltimore and P.G. County black voters to relax and stay home because Obama and O’Malley had already won (Obama wasn’t even on the 2010 ballot).
Subsequently, Henson and Ehrlich’s campaign manager, Paul Schurick, were tried, separately, first for voter suppression, and second because the robocalls failed to include an “authority line” (i.e., every political campaign ad must identify the political sponsor).
Maryland’s voter suppression statute says “no person can willfully and knowingly influence or attempt to influence a voter’s decision whether to go to the polls ... through use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, etc.” I’m good with all but the “fraud” part. Clearly, Henson’s and Schurick’s phony robocalls attempted to keep black voters from going to the polls. But where do you draw the line? Aren’t most political ads fraudulent? And aren’t political “dirty tricks” common in all campaigns?
Turns out, however, that it didn’t matter, and here’s where the story gets really slimy. Schurick was convicted on all counts, but Henson’s jury, 10 African Americans and two whites, acquitted him on the voter suppression charges and merely convicted him of conspiring to produce a political ad (robocall) that lacked an authority line, a misdemeanor. Apparently, Henson’s jury was sympathetic to his claim that he was being targeted by the Democratic establishment “for jumping over the line.”
Leaving the courthouse, a beaming Henson said he was “elated” and “grateful and thankful” for everyone’s support. If he’d known what was about to happen, he wouldn’t have been so happy.
The Baltimore Sun called the verdict “disappointing,” adding, “The judge has the chance to set things right at sentencing. Mr. Schurick got 30 days of home detention, 500 hours of community service and four years of probation for his offences. Mr. Henson deserves to be treated exactly the same ...” Well, Schurick, the white man convicted of voter suppression, and Henson, the black man convicted of being party to a political ad that didn’t have a tag line, were not treated the same. The judge threw the book at Henson: sixty days in jail, 30 days of home detention, 500 hours of community service and four years of probation during which Henson was prohibited from volunteering or working in any political campaigns.
That’s right, a man actually went to jail because a robocall he was hired to produce failed to say “I’m Bob Ehrlich and I approve this ad,” a common infraction for which no one is prosecuted, much less sent to jail. The judge, an O’Malley appointee, blatantly ignored the jury’s verdict and treated Henson as if he’d been convicted on all counts.
But wait, it gets worse. Always on the prowl for a headline, Attorney General Doug Gansler piled on by suing Henson for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act because the robocalls failed to identify the name and phone number of the party placing the call. Gansler won a $1 million verdict against Henson while deciding not to bring the same suit against Schurick, who was convicted of the same violations.
Having served his jail sentence and being barred from making a living as a campaign consultant, Henson decided to run this year for the state Senate in one of Baltimore’s most impoverished, destitute districts. Henson’s sentencing judge tried to rule Henson’s candidacy a probation violation, but it appears Henson will win on appeal.
So Henson is challenging Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a steadfast ally of Senate President Mike Miller. Henson calls Miller “a jerk” who rewards lawmakers “who are going to kiss his tail. I’m not going to kiss his tail. The only thing Mike Miller is interested in is making himself and his family richer.”
The die is cast: the Democratic establishment, the media and Mike Miller are going to make Julius Henson’s defeat their top priority. None of them want to see another person in the state Senate as smart, as talented and as ruthless as Miller.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.