Mfume appears to have shut the door on possible mayoral bid -- or has he?

January 31, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHEN FIRST spotted, Kweisi Mfume's in the midst of being adored. He's come to the State House in Annapolis for Parris Glendening's inaugural, but here in the building's big marble rotunda, it's starting to resemble Mfume's own coronation.

First, they come to shake his hand. Then they're patting him on the back, wrapping their arms around his skinny frame, bowing like emissaries to a sultan. Everybody's supposed to move outside for Glendening's inauguration speech, but they're stopping here first, telling Mfume they love him and offering him the same consistent message: Gotta run for mayor, the city of Baltimore needs you.

Mfume's gracious as can be. He tells them they're very kind, tells them he's extremely busy running the NAACP. He mentions the inauguration waiting to commence outside.

By the time I get his attention, the question's become an echo.

"When are you announcing?"

Mfume rolls his eyes. Many things are happening simultaneously: His cousin, Lawrence Bell, the Baltimore City Council president, wants to be mayor. Across this very hallway, there's Pat Jessamy, the state's attorney who wants to be mayor, and the list doesn't end there.

Mfume talks about the passion needed for the job. Yes, he's got that passion, he admits. The word "fire" comes to his lips. Yes, he admits, he's got that fire. He mentions Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings.

Rawlings says he'll introduce legislation to change the residency requirements to run for mayor. Mfume's been living outside the city for a few years, though he was a city resident for more than 30 years and has been looking for a new place in Baltimore for months.

Rawlings' bill would change the residency requirement from the current one year to a mere six months. Everybody knows the bill's intent is to open the door for Mfume.

And that's why, by week's end, the entire scene in the State House rotunda had taken on a kind of retrospective poignancy. Mfume's the front-runner if he wants it, but nobody -- not even Mfume -- knows whether he really wants it.

And there are many who are counting on his not wanting it.

Pat Jessamy, for example. Across the hall from Mfume, she said, "absolutely" she'll run for mayor.

She'll enter the race with a few problems: Her state's attorney's office has lately been hammered in public over criminal suspects released because their cases, delayed and delayed, never made it to court.

Also, not to be minimized, there's a remark Kurt L. Schmoke, the outgoing mayor, made several weeks ago in this newspaper. Looking back, Schmoke said, being state's attorney did not prepare him to be mayor.

"I saw that comment," Jessamy said. "But the important thing isn't the job history, it's the person who's running." She said she'll officially announce early next month.

Then there's Lawrence Bell, the council president.

He says he talks to his cousin, Mfume, every few nights. Like all other contenders, Bell holds his breath over Mfume's intentions. Without Mfume in the race, many think Bell's the front-runner.

"There are," Bell says, "a lot of people being very nice to me. A lot of olive branches have been extended, trying to de-escalate old wars. I've been a flamethrower, and now I'm trying to be a peacemaker. But, I mean, I'm not gonna fall in love with people who have put their footprints in my behind for 12 years."

Some of those making peace with Bell assume he wins without Mfume in the race. But Carl Stokes, a former councilman and school board member, has announced he's running. Bell says he and Stokes "have a lot in common. We're old friends" and expect to meet this week to talk about running against each other -- or as a team.

But all of this is contingent on the man who hasn't made up his mind: Mfume.

"I love my job," he says, meaning the NAACP presidency.

But some have told Mfume the job is done. He's restored political credibility and financial stability to the nation's oldest civil rights organization. His passions for the city run deep. And, Mfume says, the city's hungry for new energy, for a sense of renewed passion.

In a late-night call at week's end, though, he seemed to back away from a possible run. He talked of NAACP commitments he's made for the next year, said it was "not fair" to back away from them. And then he said:

"I've asked Pete Rawlings to withdraw the residency bill."

"That would close the door on the mayor's race, wouldn't it?" he was asked.

"Well," he said, "I don't know that Pete will listen to me. But there are a lot of people who think I put him up to introducing the bill, and I don't want them to think I did."

Such maneuvering seems to close the door on a Mfume campaign -- but not quite. And, thus, it leaves everybody else's campaign for mayor with renewed hope -- but not entirely.

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