Mfume believes Clinton signals change for cities


November 15, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The first time the newly elected Rep. Kweisi Mfume met President Ronald Reagan, both men knew they were in trouble.

Mfume asked Reagan about urban problems. Reagan changed the subject. Mfume said he was from Baltimore, where the city was in trouble. Reagan swiftly connected the word "Baltimore" to the word "Orioles." Mfume asked about Reagan's plans to help places like his hometown. Reagan tied the Orioles to a tale of how he had broadcast baseball games long ago.

LTC "He did everything he could to change the conversation," Mfume was saying last week. "I was sitting with Joe Kennedy, who'd just been elected from Massachusetts. Joe and I looked at each other, and we knew it was going to be very difficult to communicate with this man about cities."

When Ronald Reagan became George Bush, nothing changed. Over four years, Mfume and the others hoping to help the suffering cities found a president who was gracious and congenial and utterly empty of urban plans.

"He promised the Congressional Black Caucus he would meet with us regularly," Mfume said, "and we wound up meeting with him twice over four years."

He mulls this history for a moment or two. Things are changing in Washington, not only with Bill Clinton moving in full of signs he cares about cities, but with Mfume moving closer to the center of action.

He is locked in a race to become the next head of the Black Caucus, whose membership will rise to 40 after this year's single largest increase in blacks elected to Congress.

"This," says Mfume, "is probably the most ambitious point in the caucus's history. We have greater numbers, and we have a man coming in who seems to care."

He's met with Clinton several times, and campaigned hard for him. Last summer, when it was clear he would get the Democratic nomination, Clinton met with some black leaders for several hours one day.

"We agreed to meet in a no-holds-barred session," Mfume says, "and Clinton was open and frank. He could take it, and he could give it. You know, I didn't support him in the primaries. I was holding out for Mario Cuomo. But Clinton impressed me. He sounded like the first man with a serious urban policy since Lyndon Johnson."

The reference goes back merely a quarter-century. What followed Johnson's War on Poverty (poverty won, in case you hadn't noticed) was the nation's era of overt urban discontent and decay, which the thinkers in Washington have chosen to ignore.

The places like Baltimore have become repositories of the nation's poor and elderly, the disgruntled and the dangerous, the permanent underclass. In places like Baltimore, most tend to be black.

"It makes me feel pain and anger," Mfume says. "That report on young black men and crime, for example . . ." The report, issued last summer, showed 56 percent of young black men here had some connection with the criminal justice system at any given time. For a lot of whites, it gave a specific number to their fears. For a lot of blacks, it made them feel like Mfume.

"My five sons," he says, "are all young men, the age of the men in the report. It pains you to think of so many people in a generation having brushes with the law and not making the most of opportunities. But I got angry over it, because this doesn't have to be happening. The leadership of this nation has allowed this to happen."

If Mfume is right, we will now begin to see how much good intentions can change things. A sense of divisiveness hangs in ++ places where it should not. A generational change is happening in Washington, but no one knows the effect elsewhere.

"Clinton's got a different beginning and background and time," Mfume says. "He's much more comfortable around African-Americans, Hispanics and women. You can almost sense something in his background, maybe humility, when it comes to race.

"We've had too much of pitting people against each other. It's racial separation, and it's jurisdictions, too. . . . If we can change that, we can change anything."

And the next time he asks a man in the White House about cities, Mfume won't have to listen to an anecdote about baseball.

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