Mfume: a future speaker?

July 07, 1993

Baltimore's own Kweisi Mfume is the newest star in the ever-whirling Washington firmament. As chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus he has leaped to national prominence through the unlikely means of taking on a president of his own party with a series of steel-edged rebukes. At issue could be the shape and maybe the fate of the administration's economic program.

Bill Clinton and Kweisi Mfume hardly figured to be antagonists during those heady inaugural days last January. The new Democratic president owed much of his election victory margin to the 87 percent majority he amassed among African American voters. Mr. Mfume had been chosen by the Black Caucus as the more conciliatory of two candidates in the group's first contested leadership election -- one marked by its expansion from 26 to 40 members as a result of the November election.

But in only four days the disillusionment began with what Mr. Mfume calls Mr. Clinton's "total flip-flop on Haiti" -- a difficult pill for black legislators. Then came other annoyances: No meeting between the president and the caucus until the first week of March. Mr. Clinton's quick "cave-in" on his jobs-stimulus bill. Little White House interest in several brewing African crises. Although the Black Caucus provided six times the six-vote victory margin for the administration's economic package in the House, this did not prevent the famous blow-up over the Lani Guinier nomination. As the media world tuned in, Mr. Mfume spurned repeated offers for a caucus meeting with the president.

All this has created what Mr. Mfume describes as "a lot of bad blood." And it comes at a crucial time. Just before or just after a Senate-House conference convenes in mid to late July, Mr. Mfume will finally accept a meeting with the president. And at that time, his caucus will be ready to discuss a substantive agenda of items it wants as the price for its support of a final economics measure.

This may sound like more of a threat than it is. Though he is "very disappointed" with Mr. Clinton so far, Congressman Mfume says it is important for the president to succeed. So he is prepared to cooperate, just so long as the president realizes "the day of blind allegiance" by the Black Caucus is over.

Mr. Mfume, whose career has carried him from the tough streets of West Baltimore to the national limelight, says he realizes he must not lose sight of how he got where he is. And what of his political future? He disclaims any interest in being mayor, governor or senator. Instead, he loves the House and aspires to nothing less than the speakership. His prospects will be mightily affected by a budget battle in which the Congress and the White House must take heed of the Black Caucus.

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