Building coalitions, realizing ambitions, Kweisi Mfume comes into his own

August 01, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff Writer

After the rush-hour commute to Baltimore for the Friday night taping of his TV talk show, Kweisi Mfume splashes cold water onto his face, washing away the arched-brow gravitas of the Washington player who has met with the president, wrangled over the budget package and worked the levers of the town all week.

On this night, with the Baltimore County school superintendent as his guest, he is a loose and affable TV personality, a regular Phil Donahue in a better suit. But his remarkable political rise and clear-eyed ambition are never far from the surface.

When his producer asks where he is heading -- after he's waded into the studio audience during a commercial break -- he pauses, smiles and decides to answer in more cosmic terms.

"Probably straight up," the congressional comer says, with a finger pointed to the sky.

It's been the only direction this up-from-the-bootstraps politician has known for the last two decades. And this year, having been catapulted to a new level of celebrity and responsibility with his chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Maryland congressman is hoping to set the stage for even greater leaps.

Having become, almost overnight, one of the nation's most visible and powerful African-American lawmakers, he is positioning himself for a future as one of the nation's most visible and powerful lawmakers, period.

"I'd like to be speaker of the House one day if that's in the cards," states the self-possessed and personable Mr. Mfume, 44, who started planning his ascendancy to the chairmanship of the Black Caucus three years ago.

Eloquence and appeal

That the congressman with the Swahili name, the largely black, inner-city constituency and the checkered past is taken the least bit seriously when he makes such pronouncements is testament to his vast political maturing, his eloquence and widespread appeal.

It is testament to the fact that he has spent the last seven years in Congress quietly learning the ropes and the issues, often helping to preside over House sessions, a chore he volunteers to do that puts him behind the speaker's desk.

And he has remodeled himself with such smarts and precision that the one-time anti-establishment maverick of the Baltimore City Council has become as establishment as his crisp, monogrammed shirts, braided leather suspenders and pearl cuff links.

"Now he's the classic inside guy," says his longtime friend George Buntin, head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As the president's economic program moves through Congress toward a final vote this week, the four-term congressman has been the chief liberal voice in the House pressing for increased social spending for inner cities and the working poor.

Friday night, he was once again center stage, stressing on ABC's "Nightline" that the 39-member Black Caucus would not get behind the budget bill until it was assured that the package adequately funded such programs as "empowerment zones" for urban areas and tax credits for working poor families.

Although the package is shaping up with less money devoted to such programs than the House version of the bill had recommended, Mr. Mfume's colleagues have still applauded his leadership, noting that he knows how far to push to both flex his muscle and retain credibility.

While he holds the caucus' support of the budget agreement at arms length for now, he at the same time praises the administration's effort as "the first meaningful step in a very long time" toward deficit reduction.

By toeing such a delicate line, he has earned respect as a level-headed consensus-seeker, a skill he says he learned from his two terms on the City Council when he lost fight after fight because he never built coalitions.

Democratic Rep. Craig Washington of Texas, who ran against Mr. Mfume last year for caucus chair, concedes that "things worked out for the best. I can't imagine how I could have done as good a job. I think Kweisi was what the caucus needed at this time in its history."

Through his high profile on the budget dealings, his tough stand on President Clinton's dumping of Lani Guinier for the Justice Department's top civil rights post and the increased numerical strength of the Black Caucus this year, Mr. Mfume has taken on a star status of late.

Aside from his own Sunday morning chat show on WBAL-TV (which he'll have to give up as soon as he campaigns for re-election because of the federal equal time law), he has become a hot property for network talk shows, such as "Nightline." And he has been the subject of so many recent stories by the national news media that he jokes about feeling "profiled out."

Under a magnifying glass

But taking the leap to a larger stage has meant that his whole life story -- including his dropping out of high school, flirting with trouble on the streets of West Baltimore, fathering five sons by four women as an unwed teen -- has been thrust into the national spotlight.

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