Kweisi Mfume, the former national NAACP president and Baltimore congressman who rose from impoverished beginnings to become one of the nation's most prominent black leaders, said yesterday that he is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Mfume, a Democrat, is the first entrant in what is expected to be a crowded field to fill the seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes. Coming on the first working day after Sarbanes' announcement, Mfume's decision appeared designed to build early momentum and give potential rivals pause for thought.
Surrounded by five of his six sons during a news conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Mfume, 56, pledged to bring his personal story of overcoming adversity and a belief that government can be a force for good to every corner of the state.
"I can't be bought. I won't be intimidated. I don't know how to quit," he said. "I am not looking for fame, and I have no need to be validated. I do this because I believe this is the time, and this is that rare opportunity to be able to set a new course."
Already, Mfume's first-in strategy appeared to have impact. Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a well-known African-American leader from Prince George's County, said he would not seek the seat.
"After a long weekend of soul-searching, my instincts and intuition tell me that now is not the right time for me to run for the U.S. Senate," the Democratic congressman said in a statement.
State Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat from Baltimore, called Mfume "the front-runner."
"He has instant name recognition," said Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate from Prince George's County who attended yesterday's announcement at Camden Yards. "Very few candidates bring congressional experience, local experience and a national following."
Still, having last run for office in 1994, Mfume might not have a political organization or a strong network of loyalists. No elected officials surrounded him yesterday at the ballpark's Designated Hitter's Club; his blue-and-red campaign signs were carried in by his sons and by a few volunteers.
Born Frizzell Gray, Mfume (pronounced Oom-FOO-may, according to a biography released yesterday) overcame rough early years. He was arrested several times as a young man, was imprisoned, drank and used drugs, and had five children out of wedlock, one of his sons told The Sun in 2000.
But inspired by the black militant movement, he went on to get college degrees from Morgan State University and the Johns Hopkins University, and he was a community activist and radio commentator before he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1979 by three votes.
After seven years on the council, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1987 to 1996.
He stepped down from his NAACP position in November to spend more time with his family.
If elected to the Senate, Mfume said, he would focus on education, health care and Social Security for those who most need government's assistance.
He said he is in public life out of "the real hope, and the real belief, that there are still among us men and women who believe in the real power of government and its inherent ability to empower the governed in such a way that their lot is made better and their futures are made whole."
"I am a product of poverty, like so many others who are black, Latino, Asian and white," he said. "I, like many of them, learned why hard work, decency and respect are important."
At the NAACP, Mfume is credited with restoring fiscal solvency and building membership.
But he left abruptly last year under somewhat mysterious circumstances. A Time magazine article in January cited sources saying nepotism within the civil rights organization - a former girlfriend of a son was hired as a fund-raiser - was a factor in his departure.
Mfume denied the allegation yesterday, saying, "it didn't make a lot of sense to me."
"She came on board two years ago," he said. "Why wasn't there some reaction two years ago if that was the case?"
Mfume also played down reports that the NAACP ran a $4.7 million deficit in 2004 - his last year there - saying that he left it on a strong fiscal footing.
"There was no deficit. We finished every year in the black," he said. "We've been audited; those figures are around."
Mfume's candidacy challenges the direction of a party that has been in flux for two years, since Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans two to one in Maryland, Ehrlich crafted a recipe for victory by tapping into conservative Democrats in growing suburban areas and by wooing independents.
Ehrlich's win has made many Democrats question whether the traditional formula of gaining enough votes from Baltimore and the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties is sufficient.
"The question is whether conservative Democrats across the state will vote for Mfume, and I think the answer is no," said Anderson, the Baltimore lawmaker.
So if another prominent liberal or African-American leader gets in the primary race and divides the votes of blacks and other groups, a conservative-leaning Democrat - such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan or C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the congressman from Baltimore County - could emerge victorious.
"Am I too liberal for the state of Maryland? We'll find out," Mfume said. "I am proud that on social issues, people will label me as a liberal. It was always social liberalism that led the way in changing this nation, when we're stuck in the dark and difficult days of segregation, of double standards."
He said that on fiscal issues, he expects to be called a conservative.
Ruppersberger is scheduled to announce today that he is forming an exploratory committee for the race.
Montgomery Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen said yesterday that he still is mulling a run and plans to form an exploratory committee soon.
He said he wants to talk to people all over the state about the issues that are important to them and get a feel for what kind of support he might have. Van Hollen said Mfume's entry changes nothing for him.
Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings have also said they are interested in the open Senate seat.
Sarbanes, who was attending a University of Maryland-sponsored awards ceremony at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Howard County yesterday, said Mfume was one of several "strong Democrats" who have expressed interest.
"We just have to see how it sorts out," Sarbanes said. "I'm convinced that a strong candidate will emerge from this group, and we'll go on to win the seat in November . I don't expect to become involved in the primary, but I'll be very active in the general election."
Staff writers Larry Carson and Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.
Born: Frizzell Gray, Oct. 24, 1948; changed name to Kweisi Mfume (which means "conquering son of kings") in 1972
Political career: Democrat, Baltimore City Council, 1979-86; member of Congress, representing Maryland's 7th District, 1987-96
Professional career: President and CEO of NAACP, 1996-2004; host of television programs The Bottom Line and The Remarkable Journey
Personal: Single; six sons, Kweisi Jr., Kevin, Keith, Ronald, Michael and Christopher
Quote: "I believe that racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are wrong. I know that black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white bigotry. I believe that immigrant bashing and union bashing and city bashing deplete us as a union and a state, and rob us of our ability to make true and lasting change."
Career highlights of Kweisi Mfume