Mfume draws on past to face latest challenge

Senate: Though his campaign is off to a slow start, the candidate views recent allegations as just `another hurdle.'

April 30, 2005|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Kweisi Mfume sat alone at the back of the room yesterday morning, scribbling remarks he was about to deliver at a Big Brothers Big Sisters promotion at a Baltimore museum.

There were no handlers to keep crowds away from the candidate for Senate. No entourage to rebuff the fresh allegations - which he denies - about nepotism and a hostile work environment at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he was president.

Mfume did not mention his candidacy during the event about mentors for children of imprisoned parents, which he emceed. Nor did any other speaker. "What I do with this program is more important than the United States Senate," he said later.

In the six weeks since he became the first candidate to enter the race to succeed retiring incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, Mfume has kept a surprisingly low profile. After a decade out of public office, the challenges are many as he looks to mount his first statewide campaign, from raising money to hiring staffers and enlisting volunteers.

And now this latest obstacle has emerged - questions about whether he was pushed out of the national civil rights group in part because of charges from a former employee who said Mfume promoted women based on personal relationships with them.

"I view it as another hurdle in a life of hurdles that I have always found a way to endure," Mfume said in an interview.

Battling the charges, which he argued are coming from a political enemy who wants him out of the campaign, will not be difficult compared with the challenges he faced as a young man looking to escape the street life of Baltimore, he said.

"What is hard is being a 22-year-old, getting beaten up because you are getting out of a gang," he said. "Hard is lying in the gutter, with blood streaming from the back of your head.

"This is not hard," he said.

Mfume entered the race on the first business day after Sarbanes said he would not run again. "That was a masterstroke of political strategy," said Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who is supporting Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin in the primary, because it froze out other major African-American candidates such as congressmen Albert R. Wynn and Elijah E. Cummings and Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey.

"Nobody would expect him to have a campaign manger, a Web site, a finance director and regional field offices right away," Schaller said. "But it's six weeks later. Where is he?"

Mfume acknowledged that fund raising for the race, which some think could cost $5 million, is going slowly. He began making telephone calls to donors this week, he said.

He does not have a campaign manager or a media adviser. His Web site, www.mfumeforsen, bears the label "under construction," although he said it was to be operating this weekend.

"I've given myself 90 days to get myself up to speed," he said.

Mfume says he has a political director: Eric Lee Bryant, an attorney and lobbyist with the prominent firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver. But Bryant, who has worked previously for Mfume's congressional office and for the NAACP, said he is only a volunteer.

Mfume has enlisted a big name as a senior adviser: Joe Trippi, best known as presidential candidate Howard Dean's campaign manager, said that he has signed on to the campaign. Trippi is based in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, according to his Web site.

With the primary election 17 months away, Mfume has some time to get an organization in place, but not much.

"Money chases the ability to win," Schaller said. "And ability to win is a function of organization and endorsements. You have to get the snowball rolling. A primary campaign isn't about ideology, because [Democrat candidates] are not that much different. It comes down to organization and shoe-leather."

State Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said that Mfume is wearing out shoes with visits throughout Maryland that escape media attention.

"I am all over the state, and he is everywhere I go," Lierman said, citing recent appearances at a gathering of Western Maryland Democratic leaders and stops on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland.

Mary Jo Neville, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee from Howard County, said she heard Mfume speak at the Western Maryland summit. She recalled that he received a standing ovation and moved some audience members to tears with his personal tale of lifting himself from a life of street-thuggery in Baltimore.

The crowd was virtually all-white, Neville said, and "more people were over 70 than under 70 - using walkers and canes."

"They were lined up when he finished to get their picture taken," she said. "I was stunned."

Those are the kinds of voters Mfume will have to win over if he hopes to become Maryland's next senator.

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