Mfume's epiphany still cloudy to rest of us


AND SO Kweisi Mfume, flying home from Africa, glances out the window of Air Force One and decides he does not wish to be mayor of Baltimore. Beyond his window, he notices an entire world. There are pot holes in alleys, and kids hustling dope, but also Technicolor horizons. Mfume eyes the vast horizon.

Thus, perhaps, we will commence an actual campaign for mayor, instead of a coronation. We will have Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell, and A. Robert Kaufman or Patricia C. Jessamy or anybody else who wishes to jump in and talk about high school kids who cannot place the proper verb next to the noun, and the decay of stunning acres of housing and the city's trembly finances, instead of the personal desires of a single reluctant would-be, won't-be mayoral candidate.

Mfume walked away from his political agony yesterday. He walked away from all those who had labored for months to open the doors of City Hall for him, walked away from the city where he'd just bought a new home in apparent anticipation of a campaign, and maybe walked away from all future political aspirations around here.

His stomach wasn't in it. At NAACP national headquarters here yesterday, he recalled flying home from his White House-sponsored mission to Ghana, "looking at the sunset and listening to the inner me. And the next morning, I realized ... "

He saw the bigger picture, and the smaller one. He talked about the country's long struggle over civil rights, and economic fairness, and he also mentioned his youngest son, with whom he spent yesterday morning in Washington, who faces narcotics charges.

"A parent's worst nightmare," Mfume called it a few moments after his news conference ended.

But the timing of his announcement, and the specific reasoning behind it, were unclear beyond his personal concerns. For months, Mfume watched in tacit approval as political friends in Annapolis changed state law so he could run. For weeks, he'd watched in tacit approval as a Draft Mfume Committee organized around his candidacy and took out expensive newspaper advertisements. Nobody does this if a candidate says one simple word to them: No. They never heard this word from him in all this time.

So, while Mfume is entitled to live his own life, it's still unclear how he reached this sudden epiphany after so many months in which all sorts of foundations were constructed on his behalf and Mfume himself had talked at length about his love for the city, and all the work he might do to help it.

"My job is to finish the work I have begun, a more humane and just society," he said grandly. "I can't walk away from that fight at this time."

By the time he expressed these words, about 3 p.m. yesterday, they were almost anticlimactic. All day, there came a blizzard of telephone calls. Once, the cell telephone rang inside Lawrence Bell's pocket in a City Council hearing as Bell leaned into a microphone to question police Commissioner Thomas Frazier over his department's budget. Once, earlier in the morning, it awakened Carl Stokes, who heard the voice of one of the city's most prominent, and politically well-connected, ministers.

"I want you to be the mayor," the minister said. Stokes was delighted. "I'm with you a hundred percent."

"Thank you," said Stokes.

"And I know you already know the news," said the minister.

"The news?"

"Mfume's not going," said the minister to a newly reborn Stokes. By this time, the news had also reached Lawrence Bell. By late morning, he was trying to articulate his feelings in a City Hall corridor outside the Frazier police hearings.

"I'm happy, I'm confident, I hope we can begin to talk about issues now," Bell said.

But he wasn't exactly doing cartwheels. He talked of a time for healing, an odd comment at such an early hour in a political campaign. But Bell was already figuring the political calculus of his cousin's announcement: Where would Mfume's former supporters now turn?

There have been flinty remarks between the Mfume and Bell camps, part familial but mainly political. Feelings have been hurt.

Yesterday, asked if he would now endorse a candidate, Mfume asked for time. Maybe later, he said. Asked if he resented remarks Bell has made about him, Mfume said, "I've been on the ropes a long time. I don't hold anything against anybody."

Now Mfume will now deal with ill feelings about him and his vanished candidacy. Mountains were moved on his behalf. He is entitled to make his own decisions, but not everyone who heard his words found his explanation fully enlightening.

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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