Mfume sees plot to block candidacy

`Democratic operatives' lining up rivals, he claims

Argues black votes may be lost

July 14, 2005|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Senate hopeful Kweisi Mfume said yesterday that unnamed Democratic Party "operatives" were trying to block his nomination by orchestrating which candidates ran against him, and he said the party risked losing traditional support from black voters as a result.

"I think there may be some Democratic operatives in and out of the official party that would like to guide the process, much like they have guided other processes in the past," Mfume said in an interview last night.

The party, he said, could lose its long-standing support from minority groups if leaders actively work against the candidacy of a prominent black politician, he said.

This week, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who is white, announced he would not enter the race. That leaves Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Mfume as the most prominent Democrats in the contest.

Many political observers have said Mfume's best chance at victory would be if several white candidates were in the race, dividing the non-African-American vote.

Mfume, a former Baltimore congressman and past president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made his comments after similar remarks at a conference of minority media executives in Chicago yesterday. There, Mfume said he senses "a huge effort to sort of guide the process" in next year's Senate race, to "create the perception that I can't win."

"I don't take it personal," Mfume said, according to the Associated Press. "However, many voters in the state who are black or progressive might."

State Democratic leaders rejected the allegations, saying the party's nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by longtime incumbent Paul S. Sarbanes would be a hard-fought contest among well-qualified candidates.

"Maryland is blessed to have two candidates the caliber of Kweisi Mfume and Ben Cardin," said Terry Lierman, the state party chairman. "I would be proud to have either one of those candidates represent me."

Republicans are rallying around Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Maryland's first black statewide elected official.

Mfume was the first candidate to enter the race this year after Sarbanes' announcement that he would not run again. But his candidacy has been hampered by reports that he fostered a hostile work environment as head of the Baltimore-based NAACP, creating a perception that women who dated him or his son who worked there would receive promotions and favorable treatment.

Mfume acknowledges briefly dating an NAACP worker and later adopting her son, but he calls the relationship with a subordinate a "bone-headed" mistake. He said he has a strong record of hiring and promoting women, and denies any other allegations.

The allegations - contained in a confidential legal document - have slowed his fund-raising. Mfume raised $150,000 in the most recent filing period, compared with Cardin's $1 million.

Mfume would not name which operatives were working against him, but he said that Lierman, the chairman, has been supportive of his candidacy. Asked about two other top Democrats active in Maryland politics, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip, Mfume said: "I'm not talking Mike Miller, but I cannot speak for Steny Hoyer."

A call to Hoyer's office was not returned last night.

Former Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Isiah Leggett, who is African-American, said he thinks Mfume's allegations are born out of frustration, not reality.

"I wish the Democratic Party was so well-organized it could choose top-to-bottom leaders and what they're running for," he said.

Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant who has managed Mfume's congressional races, said he sees no conspiracy.

"I think the democratic process is just what it is," Murphy said. "This is for the brass ring, and everybody wants the brass ring."

Both Murphy and Leggett said Cardin needed no urging to get in the race.

With Steele's potential candidacy as a Republican, "more voters in Maryland are carrying the impression that the Democratic Party talks the talk but doesn't always walk the walk," Mfume said in the Chicago comments. In an interview, Mfume said the Democratic Party cannot repeat its roster of 2002, when it did not present a statewide African-American candidate.

GOP officials agreed with the sentiment. "The Democratic Party has just spent the last week slamming [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] and Lieutenant Governor Steele on racial issues," said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, referring to news accounts of an Ehrlich fund-raiser at an all-white country club. "Yet one of their own candidates acknowledges the Democratic Party does not promote African-Americans."

Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.

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