Mfume opts not to run

NAACP leader ends months of speculation, decides he'll stay on

Heeds his 'inner voice'

City mayoral election frozen by indecision likely to heat quickly

May 25, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn | Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Ending five tantalizing months of speculation that had paralyzed Baltimore's mayoral race, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said yesterday that he will not run for mayor and will remain with the civil rights organization.

Despite an exhaustive effort by state, city, business and community leaders to recruit the former West Baltimore congressman and city councilman into the race, Mfume said yesterday that his "inner voice" told him to remain with the nation's oldest civil rights group.

"I have repeatedly, from the outset, said that I would not be a candidate because I believe that with all certainty that my work here with the NAACP and on the national level was in many respects a job uncompleted," Mfume said at a news conference at the organization's national offices in northwest Baltimore.

The Mfume announcement finally thaws a city election frozen by his indecision. Candidates hoping to run in city races ranging from council president to council district seats have been anxiously waiting for Mfume's announcement to determine their political futures. The filing deadline for city races is July 6.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III -- Mfume's second cousin -- said yesterday that he will announce his mayoral bid this week. Bell, a West Baltimore councilman for 12 years, may hold a slight name recognition advantage in the race to succeed Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Schmoke will step down in December after 12 years, creating the first mayor's race without an incumbent in 28 years.

Mfume's decision could bode well for former East Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes. The former city school board member, who lost to Bell in the council president's race in 1995, declared his candidacy in December and has been slowly gathering support.

Mfume, however, controlled the race. A group called the Draft Mfume 2000 Committee had taken out newspaper ads and floated the idea of raising the city's $95,000 mayoral salary in hopes of enticing Mfume away from the national civil rights spotlight and his $220,000 a year job as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Taking shots

Bell will have to build support with Mfume backers disappointed by political shots he took at his cousin in radio ads over the past two weeks. A jingle in which high school students sing, "I Like Lawrence Bell," notes that Bell "lives in the city."

Mfume had lived in Catonsville, although he purchased an Inner Harbor condominium last month.

Recently, the General Assembly passed and Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a law that reduced the residency requirement for Baltimore mayoral candidates from one year to six months, a measure believed to have been drafted to allow Mfume to run.

Bell had obtained a mayoral endorsement from retired Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, a political mentor whom Mfume credited with changing his life. The Mitchell family accused Bell of taking advantage of Mitchell, who is 78 and ailing in a Northwest Baltimore nursing home.

"Lawrence took some serious shots at Kweisi, and although I thought that things like that happen in politics those shots were below [Bell's] standards or what I believed to be his standards," said Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy, a longtime supporter of both men. "I think he's going to have to reach out to a whole bunch of those folks who love Kweisi and mend some fences."

`The healing process'

Bell said yesterday that the Mfume announcement will begin "the healing process." Bell called Mfume a "mentor" and said his decision to stay with the NAACP will help Baltimore maintain national political clout. "I think it's a win-win for everybody," Bell said.

Mfume refused to throw his support behind any of the remaining candidates, saying his organization would wait until the official filing deadline passes. He dismissed the Bell ads as a part of politics.

"Let's face it, I've been the big target," Mfume said. "Who else you going to beat up on?"

Mfume declined yesterday to reveal the chief factor in his decision not to join the race.

In two speeches last month at Baltimore colleges, Mfume had flirted with a run, expressing his love for the city.

"There was a part of me that really got electrified at the concept," he said.

Yet the city's seemingly intractable problems could have proved political quicksand. Council members were told yesterday that the city faces budget deficits of $153.5 million over the next four years.

A gut feeling

While flying back on Air Force One over the weekend from a weeklong White House mission to Ghana, Mfume said he finally had some quiet time to think. He awoke Sunday with a gut feeling that he should stay with the NAACP.

"Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I awakened with absolute clarity about my future and about my work," Mfume said. "I know my job is to finish the work that I have begun."

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