Attempting to distance himself from allegations that he created a hostile environment for women at NAACP headquarters, U.S. Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume yesterday called his affair with a female staffer at the organization a brief, "boneheaded" mistake.
"I say that I'm a human being," Mfume said. "It was very short-lived, and terminated because I recognized it was a boneheaded thing to do. ... I'm not trying to excuse it, but it happens every day in society."
Mfume spoke to reporters at Baltimore's World Trade Center for more than an hour during the first of what he said would be a series of news conferences to talk about harassment charges and other topics. He touched on a variety of issues, including slot-machine gambling, health insurance, college tuition rates, and the use of filibusters to block presidential judicial nominations.
He said he could support a "limited" number of slot machines at in Baltimore if they were part of a consensus plan that would save racing jobs, and called on greater involvement by politicians to protect jobs at Giant Food and other Maryland employers shedding workers.
But with the Democratic primary 16 months away and the field of candidates to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes not set, Mfume spent most of his time talking about his tenure at the helm of the civil rights organization, which he led from 1996 until late last year, when he left after his contract was not renewed.
The former Democratic congressman continued to deny the central allegations that emerged after he became the first candidate in the race: that women he or his son were romantically involved with at the NAACP received raises and promotions, while others who rebuffed advances saw their careers stagnate.
"There was no favoritism," he said.
When the charges surfaced last month, Mfume initially said he would talk about them once - he categorically denied them - and would not speak about them again. But he acknowledged yesterday the need to change that position, saying he will continue to answer questions so that voters feel comfortable with his responses.
"I ask people to believe me and trust me, to look in my eyes and feel me in their gut, and make their minds up," Mfume said. "One thing I have learned: The more I talk about it, the better it has been, and the better people feel about it."
Mfume's accessibility may do little to erase doubts about his fitness to serve as a U.S. senator, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at , because there has been nothing that definitively proves the allegations to be false.
"Once that genie is out of the bottle, I don't know how you get it back in," Norris said.
"Let's assume he is innocent. Even if that were the case, the public has seen so many politicians in recent years stand up and deny wrongdoing, only to find out they were guilty as sin," Norris said. "Anything that he does, absent of a public, open investigation that clears him, is not going to have the kind of exculpatory impact he hopes it will have."
Despite evidence to the contrary, Mfume repeated his insistence that he had not seen a detailed 2004 report about the charges prepared by an attorney hired by the civil rights organization's board until it was leaked to him recently.
A July 27, 2004, memorandum to Mfume, from the legal subcommittee of the NAACP's board, urged him to "keep absolutely confidential the Attorney-Client Privileged Memo provided to you regarding the claim. ..."
"All I got was a synopsis," Mfume said.
He also denied yesterday there was any connection between his decision not to run for mayor in 1999 and the preparation of a memo at that time that discussed an argument between two women at the NAACP over Mfume's relationship with one of them. Mfume, who is not married and has fathered five sons out of wedlock and adopted a sixth, has acknowledged having an affair with one of the women, D'Andrea Lancelin.
Responding to a reporter's question, Mfume also said NAACP board members were free to talk about his tenure there - even though many have been reluctant to do so, citing a confidentiality agreement.
"They've always been free to say what they want," he said. "There is no confidentiality clause."
Mfume continued to link the release of the harassment report to opponents who don't want him in the race. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I don't think Humpty Dumpty jumped," he said.
With his campaign adviser, Joe Trippi, looking on, Mfume pledged to stay in the race to the end. He said fund raising has picked up after being stalled by the allegations, and that he signed an 18-month lease for a campaign office in Baltimore.
For him to get out of the contest, he said, would mean a "coronation" for another candidate, presumably Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore County Democrat who has announced his candidacy and has the support of many political leaders.
Mfume three times made allusions to the unsuccessful gubernatorial bid of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as an example of how money, endorsements and a clear primary field do not make a winner.
"This cannot be a coronation," he said. "We saw that three years ago." African-American voters, he said a few minutes later, "are not going to be energized by a coronation."
In opening comments, he addressed the possibility of a special legislative session to legalize slot machines.
Mfume said he could support a "limited" number of slot machines at Pimlico if they help preserve the 18,000 racing jobs in Maryland. Mfume said he would fight for jobs if elected, and cited the recent decision by Giant supermarket to sell its Landover corporate campus as an example of an incident in which involvement by politicians could have helped.
"Maybe there needs to be some sort of summit of minds on [slots]," Mfume said, adding that "the governor, the mayor, [and] influential and senior members of the legislature" be involved.
"Does it mean we have limited slots at Pimlico? It could possibly mean that," he said.
An aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. embraced the comment. Ehrlich has made the passage of slots his top legislative priority, but the General Assembly has not passed a slots program for three consecutive years.
"The governor welcomes Mr. Mfume to the dialogue and urges him to call on Speaker [Michael] Busch to pass a common-sense slots plan," Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.
Cardin did not return a telephone call for comment.
One of Mfume's top aides, Eric Lee Bryant, later played down Mfume's statement, saying that the former congressman was endorsing only a dialogue, not a slots program.
Mfume also said the state needed to do a better job controlling the rising costs of college tuition. He said working Marylanders should be concerned about a federal bankruptcy judge's recent decision that wiped out pension obligations for United Airlines, and said that he wanted to work to make sure that health care coverage was available to all.
Those issues, he said, should be the focus in his Senate race.
"At the end of the day, the voters always make the right choice," he said. "And if the right choice is not me, I feel I've already won. Because I think I've lifted the hopes and aspirations of a lot of people that you can speak truth to power."
Sun staff writers Kelly Brewington, Andrew A. Green and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.