Julius Henson, an African American political consultant, has made a specialty out of getting people to the polls, most often black voters and most often for black Democratic candidates. Nearly an entire generation of local and state lawmakers in Prince George’s County and Baltimore owe at least one of their ballot-box successes — or failures — over the past 15 years to his no-holds-barred approach to campaigning.
Henson, 62, has called opposing candidates derogatory names, played on racial tensions and spread sordid details about opposing candidates’ lives. He once enlisted a group of blacks in Baltimore to shout down African American lawmakers as they endorsed a white candidate, Martin O’Malley, who was running for mayor.
And long before he worked for Ehrlich, Henson worked against him, labeling him in a previous campaign as “a Nazi.”
Although Henson’s brazen attacks often have worked, they seem to have backfired more than a few times.
Now, to avoid jail for Henson, he and his lawyers will likely have to convince a jury that recorded calls placed last November to many people in the predominantly black jurisdictions of Prince George’s and Baltimore did not cross the line into illegality. Henson and his attorney have maintained that the calls were an above-board attempt to aid his latest, and perhaps most unlikely, employer — a white Republican.
With the polls still open on Election Day, a woman’s recorded voice told tens of thousands of blacks who picked up the phone to “relax” and not to worry about going to vote because O’Malley (D), the incumbent governor, had already been “successful” in his rematch against Ehrlich.
Henson has hired a lawyer, Edward Smith Jr., who shares his client’s panache for the provocative. Smith said the calls were a far cry from notorious attempts to restrict the rights of blacks after the Civil War and before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“We’ve come an awful long way from the Black Codes and poll taxes, and we may have gone over the rainbow a little on this,” Smith said. “Political speech isn’t always moral, and it’s not always nice, but it’s political speech. There will be those who agree and those who will not agree, but I really can’t see what the big deal is.”
The case amounts to the second act in an embarrassing, three-part series of legal dramas for Maryland politics this year.
Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges stemming from more than $400,000 in alleged bribes. And state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s Democrat who was long one of the most powerful and popular figures in the General Assembly, awaits trial in September on charges that he took nearly $250,000 in bribes to arrange political favors for a grocery chain.