The new year has given Mfume little to celebrate

February 06, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Kweisi Mfume will remember 1993 as a very good year.

"It was extraordinary," he told me last week.

In January, a reporter from Business Week followed Mfume around and wrote an article calling him "one of the nation's most promising black politicians" and "poised to become a key player in shaping the debate and the legislation aimed at curing the ills of the nation's inner cities."

On June 14, USA Today said he was "at the center of power" and on the brink "of political stardom."

Two weeks later, Mfume was profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. The article pointed out how, at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting, which he chairs, attended Jesse Jackson, "reporters and cameras flocked to Mr. Mfume, at the cost of the Rev. Jackson."

Only one thing, in fact, has spoiled the wonderful feeling that Mfume got from 1993:

1994.

It has been a tough new year for Mfume. One of the achievements of which he was most proud -- forming a covenant with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam -- has now called into question his judgment and political future.

No, Mfume is in no danger of losing his House seat. But Mfume had bigger plans: He wanted to become speaker of the House, and toward that end he wanted to become chairman of the Democratic Caucus after the 1994 congressional elections. (Caucus chairman is the fourth-highest leadership position after speaker, majority leader and majority whip.)

Not that Mfume was exactly next in line for the job: Rep. Vic Fazio of California, the current vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, has been jockeying for the job.

But, as Mfume told The Sun's John O'Donnell in October, he expected the House Democrats to become more "diverse" and said, "The Democratic Caucus . . . will require an individual [as chairman] who can talk to everybody and command the respect of everybody."

Translation: The job should go to a minority member, and Mfume had one in mind.

And, as an Mfume spokesman said on Oct. 30: "He [Mfume] realizes that he cannot be just a black lawmaker dealing with primarily black issues."

No, Mfume was ready to move up.

And then came Khalil Abdul Muhammad and Kean College and 1994.

And suddenly Mfume's statement that what the House needed was a person who could "command the respect of everybody" seemed a bit ironic.

Especially since it appeared as if Mfume didn't even command the total respect of his own Black Caucus.

Last Wednesday the caucus met and, at least implicitly, rebuked Mfume for his covenant with Farrakhan.

And Mfume had to announce this at a news conference with not a single member of his own caucus standing next to him.

Mfume put a brave face on it. He even told a few jokes. Afterward, when a small band of reporters followed him down to the subway beneath the Capitol, he was still willing to talk about his future.

A reporter asked if he retained an interest in becoming chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Mfume said he was considering it.

"Vic Fazio is a friend of mine and he would make a good chairman," Mfume said obligatorily. "But I am talking to him next week, and I'll let you know what my own plans are."

Then came Louis Farrakhan's news conference on Thursday, and Mfume just seemed to fold up.

Having told reporters he would take their calls after Farrakhan spoke, Mfume failed to do so.

Instead, he issued a one-sentence press release that praised Farrakhan for dismissing Muhammad and said nothing about any of the other statements Farrakhan made.

And, once again, Mfume's reaction seemed reticent, even timid, compared to that of some other elected black leaders. (Though not compared with the NAACP's staggering statement the next day that it was prepared to believe that Farrakhan "is neither anti-Semitic nor racist.")

Years that begin badly can end well, but Friday, when reporters kept calling to get some reaction from Mfume, one of his aides delivered one of the most honest -- and saddest -- lines anybody had ever heard in Washington:

"He didn't want to talk to anybody today."

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