Mfume supporters may hold key to City Hall


ON THE morning after Kweisi Mfume bid political adieu to the city of Baltimore, Carl Stokes opened his morning newspaper and read the following philosophical dig from Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings:

"The field hasn't changed. Now you have to go and rehabilitate somebody."

Stokes didn't need translation, nor did he need much time to respond. He was eating breakfast at Cross Keys the same morning, and Rawlings strolled into the place, spotted Stokes, and walked over to his table. He found Stokes with a twinkle in his eye.

"You want me to just stretch out on the table here so you can mold me for a while?" Stokes asked.

The two men laughed: Let the rejuvenations begin. It was Rawlings, as much as anyone in politics, who looked over the field of mayoral candidates last winter and, suppressing every impulse to scream, opted instead to change the city's residency law, to rally every political supporter he could find, to open discussion about raising the mayor's salary, to take out expensive newspaper ads, and to beg Kweisi Mfume to give up his NAACP leadership and enter the race.

He did this because he looked at Lawrence Bell, the City Council president and apparent leading candidate, and perceived a fine young man who has not yet begun to live his life, much less lead a city; and looked at Carl Stokes, the former city councilman and school board member, and saw a fellow who has never been a sure bet to get himself elected anything; and looked at every other anticipated candidate and thought: Oh, lord.

Thus, the summons to Mfume; thus, the disappointment of Monday, when Mfume finally announced he will not run, and left Rawlings and all other one-time Mfume backers wondering, where do we go now?

Standing in a City Hall corridor the morning Mfume withdrew, Bell immediately talked of a time for "healing." The reference was not oblique. There is widespread perception that his camp was heavy-handed and clumsy in its frantic efforts to block Mfume from entering the race.

This included not only threats of legal action, but telephone calls from Bell operatives that Mfume found personally offensive. And radio commercials Mfume found offensive. And a highly publicized endorsement from retired U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell that offended those who revere the former civil rights lion but know that he's in a nursing home in failing health.

Bell knows the bad feelings, because politics is an occupation of endless gossip. The buzz this week has been troubling. Some former Mfume supporters are openly threatening to shift their support to Stokes.

"It's time to talk issues, not style," Bell said at City Hall. "We all need to work together, and bring in [Mfume] and bring in the NAACP, and turn [the Mfume decision] into a victory for the city."

If this doesn't quite address his problem of the moment, it does give Stokes an opening.

"I've heard some of this talk," Stokes said Tuesday, "and naturally I'd like [Mfume backers'] support, but I think we have to ask for it. I'm going to ask for a meeting with them."

If this sounds like the voice of political humility, it's noteworthy that Stokes' Guilford Avenue headquarters has been transformed. Once, he couldn't get himself taken very seriously; the day after Mfume's announcement, he sat for at least three newspaper and two television interviews, finally interrupted only when an aide slipped into the room and murmured, "The phones."

The intention is to keep Stokes on the telephone for eight hours a day for the rest of this week, chatting up potential contributors. They were reluctant when Mfume was still wavering. Now, Stokes says, "I call people, and their whole demeanor is different. I've even got people calling me."

Bell has reportedly raised about $400,000, and Stokes, about $250,000.

Four years ago, Bell defeated Stokes for the City Council presidency when Stokes' campaign ran out of money in the closing couple of weeks. Stokes is vice president of business development for Mid-Atlantic Health Care, an Owings Mills-based medical equipment company. He's been balancing his political drive with his need to make a living.

Bell's been balancing his campaign with the council presidency. On Monday, when the political world revolved around Mfume's announcement, Bell was tied to a City Council hearing on the police budget. Yesterday, with his campaign in its earliest post-Mfume mode, Bell was tied to a Board of Estimates meeting.

Now, each of them must turn more fully to the campaign, and to the most striking issue: Who will get support that once would have gone to Kweisi Mfume?

Pub Date: 05/27/99

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