WASHINGTON -- Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a four-ter lawmaker often termed a "consensus builder," last night was elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group whose increased membership will make it a significant power bloc in the next Congress.
The 44-year-old lawmaker, who has served as vice chairman of the caucus, outpaced Rep. Craig Washington, a Houston Democrat, in the secret-ballot vote.
"I accept this weighty responsibility with humility, knowing that my colleagues could have nominated and elected to this office any member of our distinguished and talented group. Their confidence in me redoubles my commitment to our ideals," Mr. Mfume said.
The lawmaker won the post, 27-9, said a source who was informed of the count. But when the result was announced, the caucus, following a proposal by Mr. Washington, officially chose Mr. Mfume by acclamation.
"It was not at all close," said Mr. Washington. "I'm sure that he is going to do an excellent job."
Others had similar praise for Mr. Mfume.
"He's serious. He's thoughtful. He's a consensus builder," said Rep. Mike Espy, a Mississippi Democrat, who was elected to Congress along with Mr. Mfume in 1986. "He has a professional style, which we need."
"I've been extremely impressed with Congressman Mfume," said Rep.-elect Sanford Bishop of Georgia, one of the freshman lawmakers who will boost the caucus from 26 members to 40 members when Congress convenes in January.
Included in that group is the first black woman in the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.
Mr. Bishop, one-time head of the Georgia legislature's black caucus, said he has been struck by Mr. Mfume's ability to work with all members of Congress, the respect he receives from the House leadership and his caucus work.
Such skills, said the Georgia freshman, will be vital if the caucus is to press its agenda in Congress.
But it was his role as a conciliator and organization man that was used against him by Mr. Washington, a three-term congressman.
Mr. Washington made a strong push among the black freshmen by portraying himself as an agent of change.
The Texas Democrat said the caucus should be a more aggressive advocate of its views -- even if it leads to confrontations with the congressional leadership or the White House.
He also put a high priority on building coalitions with like-minded groups, such as women and Hispanics.
By contrast, Mr. Mfume advocated a less confrontational approach and is likely to defer to the views of veteran caucus members, such as Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and John Conyers of Michigan.
Many caucus members said they hope the group will push the Clinton administration to concentrate on the nation's cities, where most of America's blacks live and which, they noted, have been ignored during 12 years of Republican stewardship in the White House.
Besides aid to the cities, other members are pushing for more spending on education and jobs programs.
But Mr. Espy cautioned that the caucus will be more divergent in the next Congress.
Although most members are still from urban districts, an increased number will be coming from both rural and suburban areas.
And there will be new members who are not as liberal as their caucus colleagues, such as Mr. Bishop, who labels himself a "fiscal conservative."
"It will be difficult," said Mr. Espy. "I know [Mr. Mfume's] up to the job."