Mfume expected to win Black Caucus leadership

December 09, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore is set tonight to become the leader of the increasingly powerful Congressional Black Caucus, a position that will give him and the Maryland delegation heightened visibility in the next

Congress.

Several caucus members said they expect Mr. Mfume to capture the chairmanship in his contest with Rep. Craig Washington, a Houston Democrat who is making a strong push among the large crop of freshman lawmakers. The secret ballot set for tonight marks the first contested race for the leadership of the caucus, which usually elevates its vice chairman.

Mr. Mfume, the current vice chairman, described the election as "a very close race." But one source said the lawmaker from the 7th District in Baltimore already has the support of a majority of the caucus, which will expand to 40 members next year and will include the country's first black female senator, Carol M. Braun of Illinois. The last time a Democrat took office as president, in 1977, the caucus had 17 members.

Several caucus members said in interviews that they expect the caucus and Mr. Mfume to play a large role in the 103rd Congress, in which almost one out of every six Democrats in the House will be black. Caucus members will use their numbers to (( press the congressional leadership and President Clinton to pay greater attention to the nation's cities.

"Thirty-nine [caucus members] in the House is a big count," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who represents Harlem. "Thirty-nine votes is a lot of votes to ignore and take for granted."

He and others said the caucus could join with the increased number of women and Hispanics to form a strong voting bloc for a liberal agenda on social issues, including abortion rights, family leave and increased spending on education.

Mr. Mfume's leadership of the caucus will give the Maryland delegation another position of power in the next Congress.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from the 5th District in Prince George's County, was unanimously re-elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, which helps shape legislative policy for the Democratic House. He also is set to become a subcommittee chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, giving him a great deal of influence on how money is doled out.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is expected to become the first Democratic woman in the Senate leadership. There is speculation that she will named assistant floor leader, helping to pull together the votes to pass Democratic legislation. The Maryland senator already is a subcommittee chairwoman on the important Senate Appropriations Committee.

Because of their leadership positions, the Maryland lawmakers will play a significant role in shaping legislation during the Clinton administration. That is particularly true of Mr. Mfume, 44, who first gained fame in Baltimore as a mellifluous radio talk show host and later became a defiant, anti-establishment member of the City Council.

By the time he was elected to Congress in 1986, Mr. Mfume had dropped his confrontational style in favor of a more consensus-building approach. Mr. Mfume agreed that he and the Black Caucus would have more "leverage" in the next Congress. Besides pushing for more spending on the cities, the caucus' legislative wish list includes civil rights enforcement, minority business development and additional federal contracts for minority businesses.

However, Mr. Clinton will be under pressure from his more conservative supporters, particularly middle-class whites, to restrain spending on social programs during a time of soaring federal deficits.

Mr. Mfume stressed that the caucus plans to work closely with the Clinton administration, but the group will not be silent in pressing its own agenda. "It expects to be a gentle prod to the administration," said Mr. Mfume, who was easily elected to his fourth term last month.

"Not since the Carter administration have we had an urban program. There's got to be an agenda for urban America," said Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who represents an Atlanta district. There is a need for greater spending, he said, adding, "If we don't do something about it, we'll pay a greater price."

The race for the leadership of the caucus is more a question of style than of substance, since Mr. Washington and Mr. Mfume both come from urban constituencies and represent the most liberal wing of their party, members and staffers said.

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