Strategist for Bell says Mfume won't run

May 20, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

EVERYBODY WAITS for Kweisi Mfume, but Julius Henson waits with a club in his hand. Henson is Lawrence Bell's trouble shooter. Mfume says he hasn't decided if he'll run for mayor of Baltimore, so Henson placed a telephone call the other day that was subtle as a fist in the face.

"A courtesy call," Henson dubbed it. "I'm a straight shooter."

The day Mfume packed his bags for Miami, where everybody expected him to lay out his political plans to NAACP executive board members and then come home to enlighten everyone else, Henson telephoned to encourage him to stay out of politics in the city of Baltimore.

"I called and left a message," said Henson, who first helped guide an unknown Joan Pratt into the comptroller's office four years ago and now wants to make Lawrence Bell the successor to Kurt L. Schmoke.

"What I said was, `I gotta [bleep] you, and I just want you to know it's nothing personal.' He called me back. I said, `Look, Lawrence Bell pays me to hurt you, so I'm gonna hurt you. And I'm just letting you know up front.' "

As Henson explained it this week, he informed Mfume that the Bell campaign intended to file a legal complaint with the Board of Elections to bar Mfume from running -- based on what Bell's people say was an illegal act by the state legislature when it reduced the mayoral residency requirement from one year to six months.

That complaint has not yet been filed. Henson says he believes it will not be necessary, since Mfume will never enter the race. This may be wishful thinking, but Henson says it with iron conviction in his voice and his feet propped calmly on a long table in Bell's Holliday Street campaign office half a block from City Hall.

Such language will reverberate to all political corners of the city, but nowhere as profoundly as the Guilford Avenue mayoral campaign office of Carl Stokes. Like everybody else in politics, he holds his breath over Mfume's decision. Unlike everybody else, he figured he'd know by now.

"Yeah, Mfume told me he'd call me after the trip to Miami and let me know which way he was going," Stokes said Tuesday. "But he hasn't called."

Instead, Mfume left for a week's visit to Ghana. Before leaving the NAACP Miami meeting, he said he still hadn't made up his mind about the mayor's race. Previous to the trip, Mfume said he'd share his political plans with NAACP board members. If he did, nobody's admitting it.

There is a reason for this, says Julius Henson.

"He's not getting in," Henson says flatly. "They did everything for him, but he's not getting in. They changed the law, and they talked about the pay increase, but they never had the candidate. They still don't have a candidate. And the longer this goes, the clearer it is.

"When I talked to Mfume before he went to Miami, he said he didn't know what he was going to do. I believe him. I think he should know. But we were ready to file our legal complaint because we'd rather not have to fight him in a political campaign."

Mfume needs to make up his mind, and then make it public. There are many in politics who put their names on the line when they got behind his candidacy, and while many still believe he'll soon announce he is running, some are now feeling uneasy and others think he's stretched the suspense too far.

He's beginning to remind some people of Mario Cuomo, the ex-governor of New York who couldn't decide on a presidential run. People stopped caring after a while, and then Cuomo had no place to go.

But Mfume is still a young man who sees politics in his future -- at some point. To back away from the mayor's race now, after igniting so much effort on his behalf and raising so many hopes, would seem an act of cynical manipulation.

"The other problem is, the longer he waits, the more it changes the campaign," said Carl Stokes. It means less campaigning for Mfume if he does eventually get in. Meanwhile, it ties up every other candidate's fund-raising efforts because contributors are waiting to see what Mfume does.

"I'm on the phone every day trying to raise money," said Stokes, "and people are betting as if they're at Pimlico. They're looking at odds. And the longer Kweisi takes to make up his mind, the more time gets away, until it becomes a 60-day campaign, in which there's no real discussion of issues, no debates, nothing but TV commercials. So the victory goes to the one who's got the most money to spend, and that's the only thing that counts."

Unless you believe Julius Henson, who insists everybody's got it wrong about Mfume. All those politicians who changed the residency requirements, all those political types ready to beat the bushes -- they're all wrong, he says. Mfume won't run. And he sits there now with the look of a man holding aces in his hand, and nobody else at the table knows it.

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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