Mfume expected to decide soon

Mayoral announcement likely on Wednesday

May 22, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has scheduled a Wednesday news conference at the civil rights organization's headquarters to make his long-awaited announcement on whether to guide Baltimore as mayor in the 21st century.

The setting for the news conference -- the main offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- has prompted one of Mfume's key supporters -- House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings -- to worry that the former West Baltimore Congressman and City Councilman will not leave his job to become mayor.

Mfume, who is in West Africa at a conference on U.S-African issues, could not be reached for comment. NAACP spokesman John C. White said yesterday that Mfume will "say something about his future."

Rawlings, who organized the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee, took news of the announcement as an ominous sign for the hundreds of citizens who hope to entice Mfume to lead Baltimore.

"You can bet he's not going to announce that he's running for mayor from the headquarters of the NAACP," Rawlings said.

Rawlings and other committee leaders said they spoke

Thursday night with Mfume, who indicated that he was undecided.

"He has done a good job of keeping us on edge," Rawlings said.

Cheryl A. Benton, campaign manager for the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee, remained optimistic yesterday that Mfume would join the race. This weekend, volunteers from the draft movement will hold another petition drive in the city as they continue to garner support for his candidacy.

Raymond V. Haysbert, former chairman of Parks Sausage Co. and a friend of Mfume's, also said he believed that Mfume would join the race and made little of the decision to announce his intentions at the headquarters.

"Where else would he do it?" Haysbert asked.

Some on the NAACP board interpret Mfume's silence as a sign his job status will not soon change. Marc Stepp, from Michigan, said: "I would think that it would be quite appropriate for him to tell the board. If it were me I would tell my employer first rather than having them read it in the paper."

He added, "Based on that, I can only assume he will remain president of the association."

Mfume's reticence has paralyzed a city election in which residents hoped to see a wide open discussion about how Baltimore can cut its high murder rate, reduce joblessness, fix woeful schools and lower high property taxes.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III -- Mfume's second cousin -- again declared his mayoral candidacy yesterday but also failed to officially file for the race.

Mfume's announcement will not come soon enough for Baltimore political activists handcuffed by the stalling, which is affecting City Council races. If Bell decides to run for mayor, several incumbent council members will try to succeed him as council president, leaving their seats open.

"I've never seen anything like it," said city Real Estate Officer Anthony J. Ambridge, a former 13-year councilman. "You've heard of `The Day The Earth Stood Still?' This is the day Baltimore stood still."

By this time in an election year, Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police President Gary McLhinney would be interviewing mayoral candidates to present their positions to union members.

"I can't do anything," McLhinney said at a recent fund-raiser for West Baltimore Councilwoman Sheila Dixon.

Mfume is being wooed by 250 state, city, business and community leaders to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who will step down after 12 years in December.

Despite the uncertainty of the Mfume candidacy, former City Councilman and School Board Member Carl Stokes and City Wide Coalition candidate A. Robert Kaufman pressed on with their campaigns yesterday, attending community meetings and holding news conferences on city issues.

"We're doing the best we can to educate the people," Stokes spokeswoman Kelley Ray said. "Residents are happy just to be able to ask a question of a candidate."

Mfume was expected to announce his decision this week after returning from a three-day quarterly NAACP board meeting in Miami. Instead, he flew to Ghana to participate in a White House mission.

Also in Ghana this week was the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including Schmoke, giving Mfume the a chance to talk with 24 mayors from across the nation.

Organizations such as the Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) are tired of waiting for Mfume. Two weeks ago, the group of 2,000 church, community, labor and school leaders held a preliminary meeting to formulate an agenda that they will ask the city's next mayor -- whomever it might be -- to adopt.

"We refuse to be frustrated," said Jonathan Lange, group organizer. "We're out to make the election about issues and not about personalities."

As each week passes without a definitive field forming, Baltimore voters have to brace for shorter debate over city issues before the Democratic primary Sept. 14.

"It's not fair to the citizens," Stokes said.

Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

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