RICHMOND -- A coalition of African-American organizations on Tuesday announced its endorsement of longtime community leader Kathleen Sullivan for a key City Council seat left vacant by the illness of Councilman-elect Gary Bell.

Sullivan, 57, is president of the Richmond/Contra Costa Chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) and former chairwoman of the city's Human Relations and Human Rights Commission.

The coalition said in a news release that Sullivan is the right choice in part because she is "closely aligned with Mr. Bell's fundamental philosophy."

"Ms. Sullivan also has an exceptional history of community involvement, knowledge of the issues facing Richmond and great compassion, sensitivity and fairness," said Lloyd Madden, president of the Black American Political Action Committee (BAPAC) of Contra Costa County, in the news release.

Sullivan's endorsement counters calls from the Richmond Progressive Alliance and its allies to appoint Eduardo Martinez, 63, a retired elementary schoolteacher who was the next-highest vote-getter after Bell in the Nov. 6 election. Bell, who was unable to attend the swearing-in ceremony Jan. 8, remains in a coma following neurosurgery to relieve brain swelling caused by a severe sinus infection.

In recent days, both sides have sparred over who should be appointed or whether the council should instead hold a special election for the seat, which City Clerk Diane Holmes said could cost the city $200,000.

The Community Mobilization Leadership Coalition, which lists BAPAC, BWOPA, the Richmond NAACP and several other groups as members, argues that Sullivan is an exceptional leader and has a similar platform to that of Bell, who emphasized public safety, business development and cooperative relations with Chevron's local refinery in his campaign.

Bell and other candidates benefited from more than $1 million in political spending by Chevron.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance and its allies, a group including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and council members Jovanka Beckles and Tom Butt, say appointing Martinez makes sense because he trailed Bell by less than 1 percentage point in the popular vote, is aligned with the current governing coalition and would best represent the city's growing Latino community.

With three of the six voting council members backing Martinez, the best Sullivan may be able to do is get three votes and force a special election.

Councilman Jim Rogers is seen as the potential swing vote, either giving the progressives a majority for Martinez or joining Councilmen Corky Boozé and Nat Bates in supporting a Sullivan, or similar, appointment and putting the vote in a deadlock.

Rogers isn't showing his hand.

"I can see the logic in both sides of this argument," Rogers wrote in an email this week.

If Rogers does not support Martinez, the result would likely lead be a special election.

With little chance Sullivan can get the needed four votes, Bates has publicly called for a hold on the process in the hopes that Bell's health improves.

"The council should relax and provide ample time and opportunity for his recovery," Bates wrote in an open letter to supporters. "Gary could wake up in a few days, weeks or a month, and the medical doctors could declare him fit and capable of serving."

Another consideration is that a special election in 2013 would install a winner for four years, while an appointment by the council -- which could occur as early as this month -- would have to face voters in November 2014.

Sullivan has been in the spotlight in recent years for her work on the Human Rights and Human Relations Commission, including helping develop ethics guidelines designed to cool tempers in Richmond's notoriously combative council meetings.

"I'm proud to have been endorsed by the black leaders of Richmond to undertake the challenges that Gary Bell would have conquered," Sullivan said in the release. "I hope to have the opportunity to support new businesses coming into Richmond, including companies that bring green jobs, unite Richmond across ethnic lines and work hard to mediate the misunderstandings that have caused much division in the Richmond City Council."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow Twitter.com/roberthrogers.