Same race, different starting points

With contrasting styles, backgrounds, Democratic rivals aim for Senate seat

Kweisi Mfume

Maryland Votes 2006

Sun Profiles // Democratic Primary For U.s. Senate

August 27, 2006|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun reporter

When he first ran for office, Kweisi Mfume took a page out of what he calls the Muhammad Ali handbook of psychological warfare.

The former gang member, a newcomer to politics who had gained some celebrity as a local talk radio host, strode into the council chambers at City Hall and sat himself down in the chair normally occupied by the council member he was trying to unseat.

As Mfume describes the scene in his autobiography, council members, citizens and reporters were gathering for the afternoon meeting when he made his announcement: "I'm here," he said. "This is my seat."

What would follow has become the stuff of political legend, burnished with each new campaign brochure and magazine profile. He would win by just three votes - his new colleagues called him "Landslide" - launching a career that would lead to five elections to the U.S. House of Representatives, chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus and presidency of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He would cut his hair and replace his dashikis with monogrammed shirts. More significantly, he would learn how to build consensus, transforming himself from rabble-rousing confrontationalist to savvy horse trader, and winning praise from allies and adversaries alike.

But today, nearly three decades after that brash debut in council chambers, Mfume still is casting himself as the outsider.

Polls show him running even with U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, but the challenges ahead are clear. He lacks the backing of what he calls the Democratic establishment - House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and others have endorsed Cardin - and his fundraising, which stalled early last year after allegations of impropriety during his tenure at the NAACP, lags behind that of his chief rival.

Mfume - his adopted African name is pronounced Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-may - says he is the underdog in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"I learned the hard way never to be overwhelmed by overwhelming odds," said Mfume, 57, who has never lost an election. "If there's any good thing about it, it's that it causes you to sharpen your skills, to hone your message, to test your grit and to believe in things unseen."

Without television advertising or institutional party support, Mfume has relied on personal contact with potential voters. A compelling speaker in front of a crowd and an attentive listener one-on-one, he has spent nearly 18 months traveling the state, telling his life story and explaining his liberal views to the public.

The approach is finding an audience. In Frederick this month, he visited Hartz & Co. Inc., a sewing shop of more than 200 workers that is slated for closing in October. When he emerged to face reporters outside, he brought with him several middle-aged women ready to pledge their support for his candidacy.

Born Frizzell Gray in 1948, when "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs still marked the public restrooms and drinking fountains of Baltimore County, the future congressman spent his early years in the black Dundalk enclave of Turners Station.

In his 1996 autobiography, No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream, Mfume writes of an impoverished childhood punctuated by the explosive temper of an abusive stepfather.

Young Frizzell found father figures in a Little League coach and, after his stepfather walked out and his mother moved the family to West Baltimore, the leader of a drum and bugle corps. When he was 16, he writes, his mother, sick with cancer, died in his arms.

Frizzell and three younger sisters were divided among relatives, and he soon dropped out of school. In his autobiography, he describes an adolescence of drinking and taking drugs, running numbers and shooting craps. He was arrested 13 times, he writes, and had fathered five sons by four women by the age of 22.

Then came what Mfume calls the miracle of his life. He was playing dice with buddies on a West Baltimore street corner one Friday night when he felt a strange calm come over him. He saw his mother, dead then more than seven years, looking at him first with sadness, then with love.

God was giving him an opportunity to start over, Mfume says, and he resolved to straighten out his life. At the Community College of Baltimore, he edited the school newspaper and co-founded the Black Student Union. At Morgan State University, he helped to start a student radio station and worked to bring such speakers as James Baldwin, Angela Davis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to campus.

And he asked an aunt traveling in Africa to bring home a name. Frizzell Gray became Kweisi Mfume, "conquering son of kings."

It's the name by which Baltimore would come to know its newest radio personality. On WEBB and later WEAA, Mfume spun records by Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and racism in Baltimore.

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