Allegations that Kweisi Mfume promoted women at the NAACP based on personal relationships with them could harm his fledgling campaign for Senate, political experts and several allies said yesterday.
"I think it is damaging," said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat and longtime supporter of the former Baltimore congressman. "Any time you are unfair or show favoritism, that is a general knock against a person's ability to do a good job as an elected official."
Mfume, who resigned late last year as president of the national civil rights group, has denied the charges, first reported yesterday in The Washington Post. He said he believes the apparent leak of a report prepared by a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board members is the work of political enemies looking to harm him.
"I can't prevent anyone from allegations, but I can state the facts. The facts are I believe the hiring and promoting of women is the right thing to do. ... I believe every woman deserves equal pay for equal work, without exception," Mfume said last night during a speech at an African-American political club in Prince George's County, where he was greeted with vigorous applause.
Mfume vowed last night that he would not end his campaign and said it was just beginning. Still, he faces significant challenges in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, despite a Sun poll this month showing him leading a match-up of likely Democratic primary candidates.
He is banking on voters concentrating on his self-made career as a congressman and president of a venerable national institution, rather than his teen days as a street hustler named Frizzell Gray who fathered five children out of wedlock.
"This is a guy who claims to have come up from the streets, straightened himself out and stayed on the straight and narrow ever since," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the . "But it now seems, at least in the eyes of voters, he really hasn't changed that much at all, if we believe these charges."
Many Baltimore voters are likely aware of Mfume's history, but the allegations could serve as a harsh and off-putting introduction to residents of suburban counties who might be reluctant to support a left-leaning politician who as a student in the 1970s helped take over a Baltimore community college building and replaced the U.S. flag with a black-power banner, Crenson and others said.
"Some would speculate that it would detract from the congressman's crossover appeal," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at in Westminster.
Mfume is one of three declared Democrats in the race. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore County announced his candidacy this week, and community activist A. Robert Kaufman is also running.
Mfume's possible weakness makes it more likely that Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat known as an aggressive campaigner, will enter the contest.
Van Hollen "stands to gain the most if Kweisi is not in the race, or if he is weakened in the race," said Rushern Baker, a Democratic former delegate from Prince George's and a likely candidate for county executive there next year. "Van Hollen is the natural person to take a significant amount of votes in Prince George's County."
And if Mfume clears the primary field, he faces the further challenge of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele - the strongest probable Republican candidate - in the general election, said Crenson.
"Steele will be able to stand beside him as a devout Catholic with strong family vaules," Crenson said. "He will be able to make charges against Mfume that a white candidate will not."
Mfume's current and possible challengers - and other leading state politicians - remained reserved yesterday in their reaction to the allegations. None said they had knowledge of how the report surfaced.
"I have no reaction at all," said Steele, who would not stop to answer questions after an appearance in Baltimore yesterday to hand out community development funds.
"We don't know anything about this, so it obviously is inappropriate for us to comment," said Jamie Fontaine, a spokeswoman for Cardin.
Said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's Democrat who has ruled out running for the Senate seat: "The allegations are serious, but we can't rush to judgment. We have to let the evidence play itself out. We don't know the full story."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said the damage was "really not for me to handicap."
"Certainly he did a terrific job as congressman, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and all of us were proud of the leadership he brought on important issues on the national level," the mayor said.
Several longtime Mfume friends said they do not believe the allegations, but acknowledge that their existence will harm the former congressman's prospects.
"The sad thing is, people will give it some form of credibility, which has nothing to do with the truth," said Arthur W. Murphy, a political consultant who has supported Mfume for decades but is not working on his current campaign.
But Murphy said Mfume's senatorial prospects were "flawed to begin with."
"This is the same state that elected [Republican Robert] Ehrlich as governor," Murphy said. "All you have to do is ask yourself if Maryland today will elect an African-American far-left-of-center politician statewide? Highly doubtful. But I have stopped betting against him."
Sun staff writers Sumathi Reddy and Greg Barrett contributed to this article.