Underdog Dobson presses Mfume in the 7th District Challenger questions S&L; votes. Incumbent runs hard.


Rep. Kweisi Mfume is rolling toward the March 3 Democratic primary with the kind of political advantage that would make even a neurotic a bit cocky. He's the incumbent. His opponent has almost no money, and Mr. Mfume trounced him in an election just 18 months ago.

Despite all that, Michael V. Dobson, opposing Mr. Mfume for nomination to Congress, is very much on the offensive.

Mr. Dobson is charging that Mr. Mfume, D-7th, has contributed to the nation's savings and loan crisis in a series of votes since he took office in 1987.

Bolstered by supporters in his Coalition for Political Accountability, Mr. Dobson has been handing out many, many fliers bearing that charge.

Mr. Dobson is hoping that his frontal assault will dent the image of Mr. Mfume, who, with his fine oratory skills, high visibility and --ing presence, is rapidly putting his stamp on a district that was defined for many years by popular former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

Since winning a bruising election to succeed a retiring Mr. Mitchell in 1986, Mr. Mfume has used incumbency to good advantage, blending his campaign chores with his work as a congressman.

He has talked to hundreds of voters at community meetings to which he has been invited because he is a congressman -- considered a political plus this year because redistricting has added more than 100,000 new voters to the 7th.

Mr. Mfume also has three offices handling constituent service in the district, which is 70 percent black and includes much of Baltimore as well as much of western and northwestern Baltimore County. He also dips regularly into his campaign coffers to pay for open houses, community forums and holiday parties for his constituents.

"Every time Congress has not been in session I've tried to get around to communities," Mr. Mfume said. "We are trying to broaden our constituent services and get people to know me."

All of that, plus the fact that he won a mere 11 percent of the vote when he opposed Mr. Mfume in 1990, leaves Mr. Dobson in a difficult position.

Kenneth Kondner, who also ran in 1990, is unopposed in the Republican primary.

Despite the odds, Mr. Dobson, the son of the Rev. Vernon Dobson, pastor of Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, says he is undaunted and is using the campaign to attack Mr. Mfume.

The fliers -- which Mr. Dobson called a claim against Mr. Mfume -- charge that Mr. Mfume caved in to the savings and loan industry during a 1987 vote. The vote, which was 402-6, gave the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. an infusion of $5 billion to bail out insolvent thrifts.

"He supported a plan that was doomed to fail," Mr. Dobson said, adding that Mr. Mfume's vote came at the urging of savings and loan industry lobbyists.

Mr. Mfume said Mr. Dobson "twists the truth" and Mr. Mfume points to several consumer watchdog groups on Capitol Hill to back his claim.

In 1991, for instance, the Consumer Federation of America named Mr. Mfume a consumer hero for his votes on consumer issues. Also, Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader-led group, lauded Mr. Mfume's vote to trim an appropriation to the Resolution Trust Corp., the agency created to bail out insolvent thrifts.

Mr. Dobson also criticizes Mr. Mfume for favoring aid to Israel.

"He is supposed to be Mr. Anti-apartheid, and he supports a government that trades with South Africa," Mr. Dobson said of his opponent.

Mr. Mfume, meanwhile, dismisses Mr. Dobson's charges as baseless political attacks.

"We're unable to substantiate most of what he says," Mr. Mfume said. "I wonder what he does between elections. He is not involved in bringing change to the community. He just comes out of nowhere and runs."

Mr. Dobson, a loss analyst with Dun and Bradstreet who has never held political office, has raised less than $5,000 in his campaign. So he goes door-to-door to spread his message.

"Hopefully, we will be able to pull some radio off," he said.

Mr. Mfume, meanwhile, says he has on hand $108,000 in campaign funds and that he has budgeted $16,000 of it for radio and newspaper advertisements to run during the campaign's final week.

Despite the sparring between the two men, Mr. Mfume said he has not encountered Mr. Dobson in his travels around the district. And, he said, constituents don't ask him about the concerns raised by his opponent.

Instead, Mr. Mfume said, people "want to be told the truth about this economy. They want to know where you are on an issue."

One constant complaint, he said, is that people are unhappy with Congress as an institution. People are outraged by the perks, the stream of mini-scandals and the seeming inability of the nation's legislature to get a grip on the nation's problems, Mr. Mfume said.

"That criticism has always been there," Mr. Mfume said. "I try to deal with it by confronting it face up. People have a legitimate beef."

Mr. Mfume's name has not surfaced in any of the recent scandals in Congress, something he attributes partly to the fact that he commutes to Washington each day.

Mr. Mfume's critics say he is not the vocal advocate that the legendary Mr. Mitchell was during his 16 years in office. That is a point about which Mr. Mfume is philosophical.

"There is only one Parren Mitchell. But, rest assured, there will be only one Kweisi Mfume," he said with a laugh. Turning serious, he added, "We were products of our era and our time, and we develop to meet the needs of the day."

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