Mayoral hopefuls have supporting roles in a play called 'Waiting for Mfume'

April 18, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE WAITING is beginning to be over. Carl Stokes reached Kweisi Mfume on the telephone and felt it in his bones Lawrence Bell raised his own political banners but willfully left off the word "mayor" A sense of inevitability has commenced.

Will Kweisi Mfume run for mayor of Baltimore?

How can he possibly not?

Officially, he hasn't wavered from his public posture. There is still too much work to be done for his NAACP, and all the rest of it -the downtown condo, the bill in Annapolis to change residency requirements, the committee to draft Mfume, the newspaper ads - are strictly window dressing. But here is what happened when Stokes and Mfume met on the telephone the other day.

"We talked for quite a while," Stokes said "He said, 'Carl, I've been absolutely consistent in saying I'm not running. Every time The Sun runs a story, I've said, 'No, I'm not running. I moved into a condo, that's all'

"But he also said, There's been a crescendo of people asking me to run. So, Carl, I'm committing to you that I'll tell you one way or the other around May 1."

That's when Mfume goes to Miami to meet with the NAACP's national board of directors. If he decides to run for mayor, he's got to let them know first.

Mfume inherited an organization in financial catastrophe, in philosophical spinout, and has helped bring back its soul.

But there are projects he wants to finish, key people he wants to put into specific places, before he would feel comfortable leaving.

"The way I read it," Stokes said, "he's thinking more about running than he was. He was sincere when he said be wasn't running, absolutely. But I also think he's been tugged at in ways that truly move him."

He said Mfume told him a story about Clarence Blount, the venerable state senator. Blount told Mfume of driving along Edmondson Avenue recently and seeing decayed housing and trash in the street.

Blount thought of those such as Clarence Du Burns and Joe Howard, who'd broken down so many political and legal doors, and he told Mfume, "Doesn't the mayor see the things that I see on the street? I don't want to go out of here with a sense that we've lost everything we worked for.

The story clearly resonated with Mfume. In Stokes' mind, it's the kind of story passed on by a man getting ready to run for mayor.

It doesn't please Stokes, who has his own mayoral campaign. He's been meeting regularly with community groups. He's raised considerable money.

But he knows some are holding back support, and money, while they wait for a decision from Mfume.

"He told me. 'Carl, you're as strong and bright a leader as we have here.' And I know he's told other people the same thing about me," said Stokes, "Whatever happens, we're going to meet after his board meeting in May, because we both feel the city's at a crossroads, and we want to talk about our mutual vision."

This brings us to Lawrence Bell, the City Council president (and Mfume's cousin) whom some have called the front-runner in the race for mayor.

At week's end, he sounded a little deflated.

"To be honest," he said, "some of this has put me off balance "He mentioned the General Assembly's easing residency requirements for Mfume to run and called it "unfair. I don't think the city government should be viewed as a fiefdom."

"We've got real financial problems in this city," Bell said "We may have to lay off 500 jobs. We've got to close a deficit. Now they're talking about drafting (Mfume) by raising the salary for the mayor. I'm not saying an increase might not be in order, but what's the message when you're laying people off of jobs?"

Bell thought he'd gotten assurance from Mfume that he wouldn't enter the race.

But that was before the residency bill, before the "Draft Mfume" committee, before newspaper ads urging him to run.

Bell, despite campaigning for months, despite raising considerable money, hasn't officially filed for mayor.

Is there a connection to the impending Mfume candidacy? "No," Bell said, "let's just say I'm a slow starter, and I've got to get through this budget process I'm trying to be a peacemaker with everyone, and it's more difficult than I thought it would be.

"But I'm not gonna lay down and be a punching bag, and I'm not gonna let the city be a punching bag for people outside the city."

If those sound like fighting words, it might also be notable that Bell's new political banners declare, "Bell for Baltimore."

Not "Bell for Mayor."

That way, if he decides to run for re-election as council president, the signs don't have to be replaced.

"I don't plan to do that," Bell said.

In the next breath, he sighed, "This is all character-building, I guess.

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