KWEISI MFUME no longer runs for the U.S. Senate against Benjamin Cardin. For the moment, Mfume runs against Mfume. Internal memos have surfaced from his years as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, alleging sexual harassment and favoritism. This is unsettling news for the nation's oldest civil rights organization, and it is potentially murderous for a political campaign.
It means Mfume must run against his own history. He has built a career as an embodiment of human redemption, of transforming himself from an adolescence of poverty and dissolution to become one of the nation's great voices for fairness in economics, on race, and, not to be overlooked in the current controversy, on gender.
But the newly leaked memos threaten to undo such a striking personal narrative, and such a message. Even as Mfume denies the accusations, they diminish him to the stature of sexual defendant and leave him caught in a crossfire of politics and psychology: Can he continue to campaign with such charges swirling about him? And does he help himself by addressing the allegations or by ignoring them and hoping they will go away?
"I don't know how to defend myself," Mfume said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Where do I go to get my good name back? My family's going through hell. My granddaughter comes home crying from school. I ask myself, 'Do I need all this?'"
"Is there anything to the charges?" he was asked.
"Nothing, nothing, nothing," Mfume said.
He had a weariness in his voice coming from days of defensiveness over the newly leaked NAACP memos, and a sense of history.
Mfume took over leadership of the organization in 1996, in the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal involving his predecessor, Benjamin Chavis, and $3 million in NAACP debts.
Mfume, walking away from his congressional career, helped restore the NAACP's fiscal integrity and its political legitimacy. But any allegations of sexual harassment revive deeply uncomfortable issues for him, and for the organization.
One memo, from 1999, describes a shouting match between two women, and questions whether Mfume's alleged romantic relationship with one of them affected subsequent disciplinary actions.
Five years later, organization officials opened an in-house inquiry into Mfume after a female employee threatened a discrimination complaint.
That internal report characterized the NAACP as having an atmosphere filled with fights and gossip about employees' sexual behavior, and an organization beset with sexual favoritism. One employee complained that after rebuffing an advance from Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion. The report points to examples of alleged "paramours" of Mfume and of one of his sons who received promotions and raises despite poor evaluations, disciplinary actions and relatively little experience.
"I never had a relationship with these people, never," Mfume said yesterday. "The worst thing in the memo that's true is that I went out with an employee. It was 1997. It was wrong, and I stopped it. We had lunches and dinners. ... But [the woman] and I never had anything to do with each other. If these things they're alleging were really going on, how would they stay hidden all these years? And why would I run for such a high-profile office if they were true?"
In March, three days after Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced he would retire next year, Mfume declared his candidacy. Cardin announced his candidacy several weeks later. But then came disclosure of the NAACP memos: first, in The Washington Post; then new details in The Sun.
And immediately, questions arose about Mfume's political future.
"I'm not a quitter," he said yesterday. "I'd like to sit and mope for a while, but I won't. I'm continuing to campaign. I was in Charles County, and there was a big crowd, and very enthusiastic. But I'd be lying if I said this hasn't had a chilling effect on fund-raising. People don't know what to believe."
When Mfume stepped down from his NAACP duties in December, he knew there were whispers about his reasons for leaving. The whispers were linked to the memos.
"I've got enemies, like anybody else," he said yesterday. "But if there was any substance to [the allegations], I wouldn't have gotten into such a visible race. If this stuff was really going on, how could it stay hidden for so long? Complaints would have surfaced years ago."
Now he faces a political crossroads: to stay in the Senate race and face down the allegations; to hope that the accusations will fade with time; or to bow out of the race.
"My conscience is clean," Mfume said. "Now I've got to get my name back. If I leave the campaign, I get no attention. How do I get my name back then? But this kind of talk ... I don't know if it ever goes away, once it starts."
For the moment, he is not running against Ben Cardin, only against wounding internal memos in the organization he helped bring back to life over the past decade.