Abrupt departure leaves observers wondering `why' and `what's next'

Questions: Relations among NAACP leaders were said to be strained. A possible Senate run might be the upshot.

Mfume's Nine Years

Changes At The Naacp

December 01, 2004|By Ivan Penn and JoAnna Daemmrich | Ivan Penn and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Kweisi Mfume's abrupt departure as head of the NAACP left some observers wondering where he will go - and whether there's more to why he left.

He said yesterday that he wanted a vacation after nearly nine years, and he might explore opportunities in television, business or politics.

"Kweisi's capable of doing anything he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it," said Arthur Murphy, a longtime Baltimore political consultant. "He's an incredible American success story."

But others wondered whether the entire story of his departure has yet to be told, particularly given long-standing tensions among the group's top leadership.

"I don't buy any of these public pronouncements," said Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mfume, 56, announced his resignation during a news conference yesterday at the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters. He said he had no specific plans other than taking "a break" and spending time with his children, in particular his youngest son, who is 14 and in his first year of high school.

In 1996, when Mfume took over the organization, it was $3.2 million in debt and reeling from a sex scandal involving then-Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and a female NAACP employee, Mary E. Stansel. Eight months later, the organization announced that the debt had been erased through fund raising and fiscal austerity.

"Kweisi had an absolutely extraordinary run for which we remain indebted to him," said Francisco L. Borges, treasurer for the national organization. "This is a guy who was not driven by economics but a desire to serve. It would not surprise me if he would go on serving in another capacity."

Mfume, whose annual salary reached almost $300,000, said yesterday that the NAACP has $15 million in reserves.

But the organization's successes have not come without trouble, especially in recent months.

NAACP board members had not resolved issues related to his contract, which expired in October. Also, the Internal Revenue Service began reviewing the organization's tax-exempt status after Mfume and Julian Bond, the NAACP's board chairman, criticized the Bush administration last summer.

Moreover, some have said the relationship between Mfume and Bond had long been strained.

Mfume and Bond denied that any of those issues prompted the resignation. "This is not about some internal squabble," Mfume said.

The articulate and charismatic leader of the nation's oldest civil rights organization reportedly has long been eyeing the seat of Maryland's senior U.S. senator, Paul S. Sarbanes, 71. Political observers also see Mfume as a potential running mate for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Mfume said he did not resign to seek political office, but he did not rule it out. "It really is not about me looking for another office to run for," Mfume said. "If that happens, it happens."

But even before Mfume's resignation, his friends and political allies said he was pondering a run for the Senate. Mfume resigned his House seat in 1996, but he maintains his old campaign committee, which has fueled speculation about a political comeback. The committee had $99,384 at the end of September, according to Federal Election Commission records.

But many political observers say it seems unlikely that Mfume would run for Senate unless Sarbanes decided not to run again - a question that remains unanswered.

"Right now, we do not have a vacancy," said Isiah Leggett, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. "If [Sarbanes] seeks re-election, he would win the nomination easily."

But Leggett said he believes that Mfume would make a strong candidate for statewide office or the U.S. Senate. In addition, the Democrats are looking for African-American candidates for the 2006 state elections after the Republicans successfully ran a black candidate for lieutenant governor.

Sarbanes' seat, which comes up for re-election in 2006, has long been a topic for parlor gossip in Maryland politics. The low-key and erudite Democrat has often been rumored to be leaving the Senate. But he has repeatedly foiled an array of political aspirants, returning to office with wide vote margins.

In 1997, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced he would make a bid for the U.S. Senate if Sarbanes stepped down. But instead of retiring, Sarbanes went on to easily win a fifth term in 2000.

Yesterday, the senator's spokesman, Jesse Jacobs, said Sarbanes typically does not make a formal political announcement until much closer to the election.

To run for the Senate, Mfume would need to resign from the NAACP because the organization's rules prohibit its officers from seeking or holding public office. He now is free to raise money and campaign.

Competition is expected to be tough for all statewide offices, so an early start would be a boost for Mfume - a man who knows well the road to political office.

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