Kweisi Mfume's dance of indecision

The NAACP chief often stated his reluctance to run for mayor. Yet he also appeared to encourage the big production staged by his supporters.

May 30, 1999|By Erin Texeira

DID NAACP President Kweisi Mfume encourage those who wanted him to be a mayoral candidate? Or did the public courtship come unsolicited, even unwelcomed?

Well, what came first -- the chicken or the egg?

Rumors that tied Mfume to a possible mayoral candidacy have been floating in the city for more than a year. But they always were vague, their sources unclear. Then, on Dec. 3, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek a fourth term, and faces and names became attached to the call for Mfume to run. A short time later, Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings and his band of Mfume supporters formed a Draft Mfume Committee.

It would have been hard to live in Baltimore during the last several months and not know what came next: an escalating draft campaign and periodic, noncommittal public statements from Mfume. It all culminated in a press conference Monday, when Mfume said he would not be a candidate.

But before he could do that, the chatter circulated about why Mfume was reluctant to enter the race. Members of the media, city leaders and every-day folks speculated. New theories were floated almost daily.

Some observers were convinced that Mfume's reluctance was about money. The gap between the mayor's $95,000 salary and Mfume's $220,000 NAACP salary might have been too big. Or was visibility the key concern? Mfume works on a national stage. Would he feel confined in City Hall? Perhaps he was daunted by the task of leading a city challenged by high crime, drugs, vacant housing and an eroding tax base.

For whatever reasons, Mfume often sounded uninterested in running the city. In December, and again during the past two weeks, he insisted he would focus on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But he was not consistent. He often talked and acted more like a candidate than the head of a major nonprofit organization. For example:

* In a December interview, he denied interest in the race but, without prompting, detailed a virtual campaign platform by talking about the city's needs.

* In March, after living in Baltimore County for years, he moved into a condominium in the city. The new address gave him plenty of time to satisfy a six-month residency requirement that legislators were pushing and then passed.

* Later in March, Mfume positioned himself in the media spotlight by attending meetings in Baltimore and Annapolis unrelated to civil rights -- meetings the press knew about because of anonymous tips from, in some cases, NAACP headquarters.

* Last month, during a speech at Baltimore City Community College, Mfume laid the groundwork for a mayoral announcement, telling some 300 students that he would run for mayor for the love of the city, not money.

In hindsight, Mfume and his political supporters have seemingly been partners in an elaborate, months-long dance. Sometimes he led, other times he followed, but he was always a willing partner clutching an overflowing dance card.

Then he sent the band home.

Amid the nearly incessant talk about the issue in recent months, Mfume's words and actions have often been obscured by other voices. What follows are some of Mfume's statements about his possible candidacy:

* In a Dec. 3 interview with The Sun: "I am flattered that anybody would express faith and confidence in me running for mayor, but I am not actively considering anything but the work that is before me with the NAACP. I won't consider anything until my work is taken care of. ... I don't rule anything out and I don't rule anything in. After 17 or 18 years in office, I don't do that. It's just a lesson you learn. ... People are seemingly accepting anew that politics is an option for me. Politics has always been an option -- but it's my option, not anyone else's."

* In a Dec. 5 press release from the NAACP: "I am both flattered and honored that so many people of different races and walks of life throughout the greater Baltimore area would express confidence in me running for mayor of Baltimore. However, I am not actively considering anything but the work before me with the NAACP.

"The work I am doing with so many others to help try and create a better America for all Americans is very important to me. That work requires the full-time attention of all of us involved in it. There is a lot more for me to do at the NAACP, and I owe it to the Association and our members to stay focused. I believe in completing jobs.

"Therefore, I am not now nor will I be a candidate for mayor in this year's election. To those who are candidates and to those soon to throw their hats in the ring, please understand the following, that the desire to lead must not be fed on ego and personal ambition. It must be founded on sincerity and one's real desire to help all people.

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