Mfume says if he ran for mayor, it would be for love, not money

NAACP chief is object of strong draft drive

April 21, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Sounding more like a mayoral candidate each day, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume told an auditorium full of college students yesterday that public service and not money will determine whether he seeks Baltimore's highest elected office.

"I don't need to be enticed with money -- money has never been the issue," Mfume told about 300 students at Baltimore City Community College. "The survival of this city is the issue."

The statements were the strongest to date from Mfume about becoming Baltimore's 47th mayor.

The 50-year-old leader of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has repeatedly denied interest in the job, saying his focus remains addressing national civil rights issues.

But while invited to speak at his alma mater about his 1996 autobiography, "No Free Ride," Mfume stressed his love for the city as the sole reason he would run for mayor.

"I don't need to be enticed to be the mayor of this city," said Mfume, a West Baltimore tough who rose to represent his neighborhood in the City Council and Congress.

"My situation is that I am already doing something that I made a commitment to do and that I wanted to see through, but as you know this thing has taken a life of its own."

Mfume referred to the growing momentum among others to draw him into the first mayor's race without an incumbent in Baltimore in 28 years.

This week, about 200 state and local politicians joined community activists in buying Draft Mfume newspaper advertisements encouraging him to run.

Last week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a law that would change the residency requirement for city candidates from one year to six months, allowing Mfume to run.

Mfume continues to distance himself from the effort that increasingly looks like an orchestrated campaign.

The movement resembles the strategy adopted last year by those who wanted Washington's chief financial officer, Tony Williams, to run for mayor, which he did successfully.

The Draft Mfume effort has hired Williams' campaign strategist, Cheryl Benton.

Mfume responded to reports that supporters were offering incentives, such as installation on corporate boards, to supplement his mayoral salary and lure him from his $220,000-a-year NAACP job.

In stressing to students the need for them to control their destinies, Mfume assured all listening that the decision on whether he will run for mayor will be his.

"If I do get to the point where I do get into this race, it won't be because some big shot called me and said, `This is what I want you to do,' " Mfume said.

"It will be because of people like you, black and white, uptown, downtown, all across the city, saying that you care about values."

Mfume also indirectly answered the lingering question of why he would consider leaving a high-profile national role as the NAACP leader to become mayor of a city that teeters on a budget deficit, counts 300 murders a year, and houses three out of four of the region's poor.

Mfume likened the choice to the challenge he faced three years ago when he left Congress as the head of the Congressional Black Caucus to lead the NAACP.

At the time, the agency was floundering in debt while its relevance was being questioned.

"I have always been taught to believe that public service is what you bring to an issue, how you address it and that you ought not be afraid to give up anything to do something that you think might make a difference in the lives of people," Mfume said.

"That was 3 1/2 years ago; I never once regretted having to make that decision, to go from something that is very secure to something that is very insecure."

Sources close to Mfume say his candidacy could be announced as soon as May 1.

The decision could be delayed until the annual NAACP national board meeting May 13 to 15 in Miami ends. Supporters will hold a Draft Mfume rally Saturday at Mondawmin Mall.

Potential opponents speak up

Although he has not entered the race, Mfume has become a target of Democratic mayoral candidates hoping to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will step down in December after 12 years.

Mayoral candidates include former councilman and school board member Carl Stokes, city Register of Wills Mary W. Conaway, Citywide Coalition leader A. Robert Kaufman and city activists Robert Marsili and Phillip A. Brown.

On Monday, Council President Lawrence A. Bell III introduced a measure that would increase the mayor's salary by 10 percent, hoping to stave off a much larger increase -- up to 50 percent -- that Mfume supporters have suggested.

Bell, a mayoral hopeful who is Mfume's second cousin, has vowed to fight the state residency change by overturning it in the City Council.

He does not appear to have the 10 votes necessary on the 19-member council.

"This is not a kingdom, this is not a fiefdom," Bell said of the law. "It's a city."

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