Mfume decides he's no ordinary politician

May 26, 1999|By DeWayne Wickham

LAST WEEK, Del. Howard P. Rawlings thought his months of maneuvering to get NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to run for mayor had paid off.

In a telephone call from Ghana last Thursday, Mr. Mfume told Mr. Rawlings that he planned to hold a press conference today, where he would announce his resignation from the NAACP post.

From their conversation, Mr. Rawlings expected Mr. Mfume to announce his plans to enter the mayoral race from the steps of City Hall this Saturday before a raucous crowd of supporters. Mr. Mfume had agreed to attend the rally.

But instead of a dramatic entrance, Mr. Mfume beat a hasty retreat.

On Monday, Mr. Mfume hurriedly called a news conference, declaring, "I am not now, nor will I be, a candidate for mayor."

For Mr. Rawlings, Mr. Mfume's decision was as disconcerting as it was final: "He never emphatically told me he was going to run, but that was the clear indication."

So what happened between Thursday and Monday?

In an interview Monday, Mr. Mfume said that during the quiet time of his flight back from Africa, he listened to his inner voice: "I believed my gut was speaking to me as it had done before -- and every time that I have gone against it I've screwed up in life."

Mr. Mfume dismisses speculation that the arrest of his youngest son in Washington last week on charges of selling cocaine prompted his decision. "It did not have any impact on my decision not to run. It did have an impact on me as a parent."

Mr. Rawlings speculates that the Africa trip had a lot to do with the churning in Mr. Mfume's gut that prompted him to put an end to five months of speculation about his intentions of running for mayor.

In departing for Africa after the NAACP's recent board meeting in Miami, Mr. Mfume escaped the unrelenting scrutiny of the throng of Baltimore journalists who followed him there. He also distanced himself from the mounting pressures of a decision imposed upon him by a committee of influential Marylanders whose members were working mightily to draft him into the race to replace retiring Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"I think it was a blessing in disguise when the White House asked me to be part of the official delegation" to the summit meeting of black leaders from the United States and Africa, Mr. Mfume said of his weeklong trip to Ghana. "When I left, I was still totally undecided. Totally undecided."

In Africa, Mr. Mfume, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and the Rev. Jesse Jackson -- all of whom are known in Africa -- were the stars of the U.S. delegation, which included about two dozen U.S. mayors.

Mr. Mfume said the time he spent with the mayors proved to be invaluable, giving him "a better appreciation of what they do." He didn't say that his decision turned on what they said.

But Mr. Rawlings has a theory: "I think those mayors looked quite ordinary to him," compared with the national leaders who made the trip. He believes the relative unimportance of the mayors at the summit dashed any interest Mr. Mfume may have had in joining their ranks.

If there's one thing Kweisi Mfume isn't, it is ordinary.

Upon reflection, he admits to having been "seduced" by all of the attention the Draft Mfume committee bestowed upon him -- attention that caused the leader of the nation's most prominent civil rights group to stop listening to himself.

As much as Mr. Mfume was intrigued with the idea of his leading an attack on Baltimore's problems from City Hall, he ultimately chose to be a national leader on issues of race and economic justice over fixing potholes and broken schools in Baltimore.

"We'll have to figure out where we go from here," Mr. Rawlings said of the draft committee, whose members Mr. Mfume praised.

"I think, for the most part, their desire to have me run for mayor was very genuine," Mr. Mfume said. "But to some extent they didn't understand that I am a man and not a messiah and that at the end of the day, I've got to make my own call."

On Monday, he did just that.

DeWayne Wickham, a former Sun reporter, is a columnist for USA Today and the Gannett News Service.

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