For student, Mfume's idealism will live on

September 16, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Amanda Rodrigues-Smith's summer of idealism came to an end late Tuesday night, when Kweisi Mfume lost his bid to be the next U.S. senator from Maryland.

Rodrigues-Smith worked as a volunteer for Mfume's campaign. From her dorm room at the University of North Carolina, where she's a junior political science and journalism major, she expressed disappointment that the candidate of her choice didn't win. So disappointed, she said, that she just might cast her ballot for Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the general election.

Perhaps leaders of Maryland's Democratic Party should ponder that. Rodrigues-Smith's politics could be described as liberal. She's a member of the Carolina Association of Black Journalists. This semester at UNC she's organizing a panel discussion on the disparate way the news media covers white missing children and black missing children.

If she's willing to defect to the Republicans in November, how many other young black Democrats will?

Rodrigues-Smith pegged Mfume as her candidate of choice shortly after she finished her sophomore year at UNC. She made a stop as counselor for the Hugh O'Brian Youth Foundation leadership seminar in May at Mount Saint Mary's College first. Rodrigues-Smith is an alumna of the HOBY program, which gathers outstanding high school sophomores for three-day seminars each spring. Becoming a counselor for the program was her way of giving back to it. (And yes, it is named for the actor Hugh O'Brian who played Wyatt Earp on television in the 1950s.)

While Rodrigues-Smith worked as an intern with Mfume's campaign, she kept busy doing other things as well. She returned to UNC to take two summer courses: Acting for Nonmajors and Race and Ethnic Relations. It was in the latter class that she encountered a white guy who blamed rap music for all the ills afflicting black America. Rodrigues-Smith said she felt tempted to tell the fellow that white guys his age buy most of the rap music America produces and are part of the problem.

Just before she headed back to UNC in late August for the start of the fall semester, Rodrigues-Smith served again as a counselor at a sports/career camp in East Baltimore. She's an alumna of that program too. Once again, she was giving back. As I watched Richard Sher of WJZ television interview her for a story about the sports/career camp, I began to understand what attracted her to Mfume the senatorial candidate.

It's more than their common roots in West Baltimore. (Mfume came to West Baltimore from Turners Station. Rodrigues-Smith's family, as the Portuguese spelling of Rodrigues indicates, came there from farther south. A lot farther south: Brazil.) Amanda Rodrigues-Smith, in her summer of idealism, had attached herself to a candidate who's an inveterate idealist. And an optimist.

Perhaps that's why she and the other campaign interns listened in rapt attention as Mfume gave one of his standard speeches at an early August fundraiser. Mfume went all the way back to 1968 to explain to his supporters when and why he first became interested in politics and why he became a Democrat. Three speeches from that year had an impact on Mfume.

The first was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech about why he supported striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., shortly before he was assassinated. The second was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's speech before he went to California, where he was shot the night he won that state's Democratic primary. Kennedy died the next morning.

The third speech was the one Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey made at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

"That's what turned my head that year," Mfume said.

I hate to be a wet blanket, but one of Humphrey's quotes that Mfume said impressed him was the vice president saying, "Race is secondary to our needs." Don't Democrats today believe precisely the opposite? The party that believes diversity is such a compelling state interest that it excludes whites from having the protection of the 14th Amendment, or that interprets affirmative action executive orders stipulating colorblind policies as color-conscious ones can be described no other way.

But wait! Maybe that's the pessimist or curmudgeon in me talking. Maybe I need a honey-dip break. I'm forgetting who the idealists are in this story.

That would be Mfume, who survived some troubled years as a teenager to go on and become a city councilman, congressman and president of the NAACP. And Rodrigues-Smith, who went from public schools in West Baltimore to graduate from Baltimore County's Western School of Technology and Environmental Science to UNC.

Will Mfume's idealism inspire him to run for mayor of Baltimore, as some have speculated? We'll know within a couple of years. If he does, he can count on one idealistic intern returning to work on his campaign a second time.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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