Bruised feelings all around in wake of Mfume decision

Backers feel rejected

rights leaders left out

May 26, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

As Baltimore's curious precampaign saga ends, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume finds himself left with much to repair.

Political and business leaders in Baltimore who wagered that Mfume would run for mayor were left yesterday feeling jilted. Many are saying his flirtations with a possible mayoral bid wound his political credibility for future races.

And even as many in the NAACP celebrate Mfume's decision to stay, some board and staff members also are saying that his protracted and secretive decision-making unfairly left them in the dark.

Events also have sparked philosophical questions about whether Mfume is more a politician than a committed civil rights leader -- and what that means for an organization still struggling to regain its voice in the nation's racial discussion.

"I'm glad we finally know. Let's just say it could have happened differently," Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board, said yesterday in terse tones.

"It's been a distraction because the question has been the mayor's race and not the work that we do," Bond said. "The work we do has gone on but the focus, the spotlight, has been on this other question."

Based on Mfume's statements last week, Bond and other board members had expected an announcement to be made today. They did not learn that Mfume had convened a news conference to announce his decision until reporters called Monday afternoon, they said.

Indeed, when Mfume took the podium at the North Baltimore headquarters of the NationalAssociation for the Advancement of Colored People on Monday, few on the staff knew what he would say, staff members said.

Though he had e-mailed board members just hours before the news conference to share details about his son's recent arrest on drug charges, he made no mention of the decision that he would soon share with the world.

"I don't know what effort he made to communicate it to the national board," said the Rev. Franklin E. Breckenridge, a board member from Indiana. "It would have been nice to hear it from him. When a person seeks other employment, they usually let their employer know."

To be sure, Mfume was deeply conflicted about whether to run for mayor of Baltimore. During more than six months of activity aimed at pulling him into the race, he initially said he would not be a candidate, then admitted he was considering it.

Indications are that as late as Sunday, he was still privately debating whether to enter the race.

When he announced his intentions to stay, NAACP board and staff members were delighted. They gave him several spontaneous rounds of applause and a standing ovation at the news conference.

"It's a jubilant atmosphere here today," Jamal-Harrison Bryant, head of the youth and college division, said yesterday. "There's so much relief that it's now over."

`Out on a limb'

But the negative political fall-out -- both inside and outside the NAACP -- may be unavoidable: Many of the city's most powerful elected and business leaders threw their weight and money behind him as a candidate.

"This is a guy who had everybody go out on a limb for him over a period of months," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "And he just chopped it off."

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the House appropriations chairman who headed a draft Mfume campaign in recent weeks, said part of the issue is that Mfume waited too long and allowed people to build up hope.

Then he let them down, Rawlings said.

"I think he recognized, given the magnitude of this effort and the fact that it had such broad citywide and even statewide support, it would be very difficult for him to venture into the political arena [again] without some suspicion on the part of the people," Rawlings said.

Mfume acknowledged that he fears just that.

"Some people will say, `That did it for Kweisi. He'll never be able to run for anything again,' " he said Monday. "But I've got a resilient force and I've always learned how to get up off the mat. I am a political person by nature."

Political roots

Some on the board -- which hired Mfume and which controls nearly every aspect of the organization -- wonder if the way the mayoral issue played out is an indication that Mfume remains split between his political roots and his present-day civil rights mission.

"I think most people see Bond as a civil rights activist and Kweisi more as a diplomat or politician-type," said Larry Carter, a board member from Iowa. "He's done a lot in the area of civil rights too, but I think throughout there was a tinge of politics."

Mfume, who turned 50 in October, is younger by about a decade than the average national board member. Most, including Bond, 59, earned their stripes during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s -- at a time when Mfume had not yet made his mark as an activist or politician.

"He came later -- no question about it," Carter said. "Most people know him as a congressman."

Mfume and others who have more experience in political and corporate arenas than in sit-ins and marches may constitute the next wave of civil rights leaders, according to Ronald Walters, a political scientist with the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I'm not sure Mfume has become a civil rights leader except in terms of his position," Walters said. "Part of that is that he's been involved in the internal machinations [of the NAACP] but maybe he just has a different style."

He added, "You could almost view Mfume as a politician who's biding his time."

Staff writers Gerard Shields and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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