Momentum for Mfume

December 10, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

The "draft Mfume" movement is gaining momentum - and the draftee is not resisting.

The former Baltimore congressman, Kweisi Mfume, has politely deflected the incessant questions about whether he might run for mayor next year. His friend, Council President Sheila Dixon, becomes mayor automatically when Martin O'Malley leaves the mayor's office in January to become governor.

In recent days, Mr. Mfume says, people are all but chanting "Run, Kweisi, run."

Last Tuesday evening, he arrived at a meeting of the Baltimore BLEWS, the local Black/Jewish Forum, to echoes of that same clamor.

He was met near the door at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation by former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who wore a ceramic lapel pin that said "Draft Mfume."

When Mr. Mfume was introduced during the BLEWS meeting, there were further allusions to the mayoral race. And when the evening came to a close, he was invited to use the occasion to declare his candidacy. He smiled and demurred.

Asked after the program if he gets this sort of reception elsewhere, he said, "Everywhere. It's a crescendo. It's building. It's not going down." The questions and the urging are there waiting for him in supermarkets, on radio talk shows and at events like the one Tuesday evening.

His responses are anything but dismissive, as they were earlier when he said Ms. Dixon should have an opportunity to do the job at least until the campaign season draws closer.

Mr. Mfume has just run a strong but unsuccessful race for U.S. Senate, and some have wondered why a former congressman would be willing to step "down" to run for mayor. He's said he doesn't consider it "stepping down."

"I love Baltimore," he says.

He does not minimize the challenge, on the other hand. Many have observed that cities can be a political graveyard for talented, aspiring political leaders. The problems are so deep-seated and the resources for addressing them so sparse that failure can seem almost inevitable.

He says, without minimizing the risks, that the challenge has always attracted him. And, he said on Tuesday, he has the advantage of having watched someone do the job well - of seeing that it's not impossible. When he was a member of the Baltimore City Council, he recalled, William Donald Schaefer was mayor.

"I've seen how it can be done when it's done right," he said.

His entry into the race might persuade many others not to run at all. He has near 100 percent name recognition and a resume no other potential candidate can match. He took two-thirds of the city vote in the Democratic primary against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Tuesday's reception at the BLEWS event suggests he would be a strong candidate among the very active and large Jewish electorate in the city.

He has his detractors, to be sure, but draft fervor appears quite strong.

If he is moving toward entering the race - and everything suggests he is - it would reflect an assessment of his options. He would appear to be a strong contender if U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski chose to retire - but there is no suggestion she's ready to leave. In fact, with Democrats now in the majority, she holds two important Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairs.

So City Hall might look unusually attractive - more attractive than waiting for something to break his way. He knows that although the Democratic Party must act affirmatively to show its gratitude for black voter support, there are many good black contenders. There are other fine mayoral candidates in Baltimore, but Mr. Mfume would strike many as the strongest.

If he runs and acquits himself well in the mayor's office, moreover, he would be an even stronger candidate for the Senate.

The current draft movement doesn't hurt either.

Well before the last election, with the prospect of Mr. O'Malley's departure for Annapolis and the governor's office, Baltimoreans have wondered whether Ms. Dixon was up to the job she will assume in January. Time will tell, as always.

Meanwhile, the Mfume drumbeat builds.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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