NAACP prepares for loss of leader

Mfume moves toward entering mayor's race in Baltimore City

April 22, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

As Kweisi Mfume edges closer to entering Baltimore's mayoral race, NAACP officials are preparing for what looks like the inevitable: their president's departure.

For weeks, board Chairman Julian Bond has been e-mailing board members news stories from Baltimore in an apparent attempt to soften the blow of a possible Mfume resignation.

"I guess the stage is being set: `Don't be surprised if he does make this move and understand that he is being drafted,' " said Tony Fugett, a national board member from Baltimore.

Fugett said Bond's most recent e-mail was "like a position statement from the chairman as to why [Mfume] is doing this."

Yesterday, board members expressed an equal mix of anxiety and resignation about Mfume's future with the organization. Most are weary of the months-long speculation that has left the organization's leadership in the air.

The latest buzz from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has its headquarters in Northwest Baltimore, comes after Mfume explained to a Baltimore audience this week why he would enter the race. He said, "I love all this city and state has given to me, and I think I have a small chance now to give some of it back."

On hearing that statement, a staffer at the headquarters said yesterday, "Oh, my God. That's an announcement. He has announced. Wow."

NAACP spokesman John White denied that an announcement was made, insisting that

Mfume's plan not to enter the race has not changed.

But he said he had not expected his boss' remarks to a Baltimore City Community College audience Tuesday.

"I was surprised, frankly," White said. "It wasn't something we had talked about. -- I like to know what [NAACP officials] are going to say before they say it."

Mfume has more than two years left on his contract with the NAACP, and, despite repeated enticements from state and Baltimore leaders and residents for him to enter the mayor's race, the board has not attempted in recent months to persuade Mfume to stay.

Some board members say his $220,000 a year salary should be enough to make him stay put, but others wonder if the board, by its silence, is not tacitly bidding him adieu.

"If I were chair, I'd say, `I want to keep you. Let's renegotiate your contract,' " said one board member. "If he doesn't [agree to renegotiate] I would take that as a positional statement."

Said Joe Madison, a radio talk-show host and a longtime board member from Prince George's County who recently stepped down: "You don't see anything trying to sweeten the pot at the NAACP. It's interesting the pull is coming like gravity from Baltimore to be mayor, but there's no gravitational pull coming from the NAACP to stay there."

Board members acknowledge that with the organization on solid financial footing, officials are in an excellent position to recruit a new president. "We're in good shape for someone else to come in and take over," said Louise Simpson, a board member from New York. "Maybe we'll be able to attract someone with more of a civil rights record than him."

Despite rampant speculation about possible Mfume successors, board members have not set up a search committee for a replacement and have not named a potential interim replacement.

With 64 board members around the country, news updates from Baltimore often take days to reach even the most plugged-in. Many, particularly those with no e-mail, don't see them.

In recent weeks, articles from The Sun that Bond has sent through e-mail to members who are online have been prefaced only by "For your information. Julian Bond."

"I have no idea what's happening," Simpson said. "I'm not online."

With such scant information -- and none from Mfume since a fax he sent in December -- most appear to have taken Mfume's repeated assurances that he will not leave the NAACP at face value.

"He said he wasn't interested," said Larry Carter, a board member from Iowa. "But let's face it -- we're all human beings. It seems like this is moving in leaps and bounds."

Many expect such confusion to be cleared up after the NAACP's quarterly board meeting May 13-15 in Miami. Most such meetings get little outside attention, but many expect that if Mfume plans to enter the race, he will resign then.

Because the NAACP is nonprofit, Mfume must remain nonpartisan and cannot declare his candidacy until he resigns.

"I think people are reading all the speculation and want to have some closure on the issue," said Leon Russell, a board member from Florida. "People are very happy with our leadership right now, so this causes everyone a little stress."

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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