Mfume crossed city line to vote

Touted for mayor, he lived in county, voted in Baltimore

May 05, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore elections officials confirmed yesterday that NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who is being courted by many to run for mayor, voted in the city despite living in Baltimore County for the past three years.

But whether the former West Baltimore congressman and city councilman violated state election laws is unclear because of what officials say is vagueness in Maryland's loosely written election residency rules.

Despite living in Catonsville, the leader of the nation's most visible civil rights group owned city property as recently as October. City and state election leaders said yesterday that Mfume may have abided by state election laws because he did not register to vote in the county.

"He wasn't double-dipping," said Herb C. Smith, a Western Maryland College political science professor who for eight years was a member and consultant to the Maryland elections board. "As long as it was one Mfume, one vote."

Mfume's situation resembles that of state Sen. Clarence W. Blount. Last year, Maryland's highest court returned Blount's name to the Democratic primary ballot, reversing a lower court's decision that Blount did not live in the Northwest Baltimore district he represents.

Despite owning a condominium in Pikesville, Blount rented a Baltimore apartment whose address he used when he registered to vote and collected his mail. The Baltimore address was listed on his driver's license.

"It's the same as in Blount," state Administrator of Election Laws Linda H. Lamone said of Mfume's city voting record. "You don't establish a new domicile unless you abandon the old one."

Last month, Mfume purchased a Harbor Court condominium and changed his city voting residency to the property at 10 Lee St. Mfume sold his city home at 3403 Hilton St. -- the address on his voter registration -- in August 1996. Mfume voted in the city in 1996 and last year after he sold the property. He also owned a home, bequeathed to him by an aunt, which he sold in October, Mfume has said.

In a statement yesterday, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People spokesman said Mfume is confident that questions over his voting in the city will be resolved.

"He has always considered himself a city resident," NAACP spokesman John White said. "He lives in the city, he works in the city, he goes to church in the city and he banks in the city."

Mfume's residency became a source of controversy last month after Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a law that would reduce the residency requirement for city mayoral candidates from one year to six months.

Mfume has repeatedly denied interest in the mayor's race but is expected to make an announcement over the next two weeks on whether he will run. A group of city and state political and community leaders has been encouraging Mfume to run.

Questions over Mfume's city voting surfaced yesterday after a published report in the Baltimore Press. Reaction to the voting controversy varied. Mfume supporters described it as as an example of his love for the city.

Smith of Western Maryland College, who was a member or consultant to the state election board from 1985 to 1993, said Mfume's city votes were well within Maryland's loose definition of residency.

Others said the longtime politician should have known better. "His excuse for voting outside his jurisdiction does not sound convincing since he is a knowledgeable political leader," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political science professor. "I think you have to live there. [Maryland's voting residency rules] are not that loose."

Mfume supporters capitalized on the voting record dispute to say that it shows his commitment to the city.

"Clearly, Kweisi's heart, his family and all of his ties are in Baltimore," said Cheryl Benton, campaign manager for the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee.

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who has led the effort to recruit Mfume for mayor, said the voting issue is an attempt to block Mfume's candidacy.

"I see this as a tempest in a teapot," Rawlings said. "Mfume was committed to voting. He was committed to voting in the city."

Attorney George A. Nilson, who represented Blount in a lawsuit over his residency during the 1998 election, said Mfume would have had to indicate a clear desire to abandon residency in Baltimore City to have violated voting laws. He said that does not seem clear from the circumstances.

"Kweisi Mfume has been a part of Baltimore City for decades," said Nilson, who is also vice president of the Baltimore Homeowners' Coalition. "That doesn't really get me upset as a citizen of Baltimore or a lawyer."

Even Mfume's possible Democratic mayoral primary opponents did not appear concerned over the news. Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and school board member, declined to comment. And A. Robert Kaufman, president of the City Wide Coalition, called the matter "petty."

"If he feels some kindred spirit to the place where he grew up rather than where he lives, I don't think it's a big deal," Kaufman said.

Crenson, the Hopkins professor, acknowledged that the matter will not likely derail a Mfume candidacy.

"I don't think anybody will want to touch this," Crenson said. "Too many people have too much invested in him."

Pub Date: 5/05/99

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