NAACP meetings may be springboard for Mfume decision

Rights group's chief pressured to decide on city mayoral bid

May 13, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Erin Texeira | Gerard Shields and Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

As the board of the NAACP begins a series of meetings today in Miami, Kweisi Mfume, the group's president, is under mounting pressure to decide whether to run for mayor of Baltimore.

Mfume's ardent supporters in Maryland see the meetings as decisive to a mayoral candidacy, and NAACP board members are looking at Julian Bond as Mfume's potential replacement as the administrative leader of the civil rights organization.

Asked whether Mfume appears to be close to a candidacy, Larry Carter, a board member from Des Moines, Iowa, said, "It seems like it's moving in leaps and bounds in that direction. ... He'll probably let us know a lot more" in Miami.

Maryland Comptroller and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a key member of the Draft Mfume committee in Baltimore, counseled Mfume to "to stop all of this stuff about begging him to run. It's up to him now to make a decision right away."

As celebrations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 90th year begin, predicting whether the former U.S. representative and West Baltimore city councilman will run remains as hard as forecasting Saturday's Preakness winner.

"A month ago, I would have said [the odds against Mfume's running were] 70-30, but now I'd say it was 50-50," said Tony Fugett, a Baltimore NAACP board member. "He is such a magnet, and he's the type of person who feels he can make a difference."

All agree that until Mfume announces, Baltimore's mayoral campaign remains on hold. Candidates are unable to campaign effectively, interest groups are handcuffed in persuading contenders to adopt positions, and campaign contributions remain frozen.

"He has the same impact that IBM has on the Dow Jones" stock market index, downtown developer Otis Warren said of Mfume's decision.

Mfume has made two speeches in the past two weeks indicating that he is interested in the job. He said last week that he expected to make an announcement after the Miami meetings.

Mfume must decide whether to risk a career in which he has emerged as one of the nation's chief civil rights leaders to tackle a city teeming with seemingly intractable problems such as violent crime, drug addiction, woeful schools, high unemployment and a stagnant tax base.

Potential rewards

The rewards for turning the city around could include a seat in the U.S. Senate, which would fulfill Mfume's dream of returning to Congress. The danger is that he could become mired in city troubles that put on hold the Senate hopes laid out 12 years ago by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

For Mfume supporters such as Warren, the future of Baltimore hinges on this weekend. Warren has joined 250 state, city, business and community leaders who have taken out newspaper ads begging Mfume to join the mayor's race and formed the Draft Mfume Committee 2000.

Backers of Mfume, who grew up poor in West Baltimore, think he could consolidate state, city and regional politicians willing to work together to aid a city that was once the heart of Maryland.

"He can lead," Warren said. "And he can bring people together."

The unanswered question, detractors say, is whether Mfume could handle the nuts and bolts of being an effective mayor. Frustrated citizens want to know what solutions the 50-year-old former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus has for city woes.

As a city councilman, Mfume is remembered for his black nationalist passions and his often harsh opposition to Mayor Schaefer, whom he held up as the symbol of white dominance over blacks in the city. His most renowned piece of council legislation was one that forced the city to divest itself of holdings in South Africa, then under apartheid.

In Congress, Mfume softened his approach, emerging as a compromiser and learning to work with opponents -- even mending fences with Schaefer, by then governor -- to push for legislation to help minority businesses and the urban poor, particularly public housing residents.

Some wonder whether Mfume, who earns $220,000 a year as NAACP president and recently purchased a $300,000 Inner Harbor condominium, will be able to relate to everyday mayoral duties such as making sure people's trash gets collected.

"I don't know of anything he did as a councilman or congressman that impacted my front yard or back yard," said Timothy Mercer, a West Baltimore neighborhood activist who is backing former Councilman Carl Stokes for mayor.

City of contrasts

What Mfume would bring to City Hall, even some detractors agree, is a restoration of the city's wounded image. From its role as the the base of a national television show, "Homicide: Life On The Streets" to Schmoke's going on Jay Leno's television show to discuss the city's being named the venereal disease capital of the nation, Baltimore has become a tale of two cities, the glittering Inner Harbor and nearby neighborhoods festering with poverty mindful of the Third World.

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