WASHINGTON -- Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume is locked in a race to become the next head of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose unprecedented electoral gains could make it a key power center in the 103rd Congress and a prod for Bill Clinton's attention to black concerns.
The 44-year-old Baltimore lawmaker, currently the vice chairman of the caucus, could not be reached for comment.
He is considered the front-runner in the race to succeed Rep. Ed Towns, according to sources, who point to his second-in-command status and behind-the-scenes work. Mr. Mfume sent a letter this fall to caucus members, picking up endorsements from more than half. This week he began contacting incoming caucus members.
The 26-member caucus will rise to 40 lawmakers in the next Congress and include the first black woman in the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. Tuesday's election saw the single largest increase in black members of Congress.
"The caucus is at the point of being a base of power in the House," said Ron Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University and a former Jesse Jackson aide. The caucus, he added, could also forge alliances with traditionally liberal members, including the House's 47 women and 17 Hispanics, to form a strong voting bloc and push key items, such as urban aid.
"The form and substance of our legislative portfolio will be expanded and enhanced," declared Mr. Towns, the New York congressman who will step down after his two-year stint as caucus chairman.
One Capitol Hill staff member foresees a more activist caucus, noting that many incoming members have government experience as mayors, aldermen and state lawmakers. At the same time, many of the younger caucus members, such as Reps. Maxine Waters of California and John Lewis of Georgia, were early supporters of Mr. Clinton, whose election was secured with 83 percent of the black vote nationwide.
But some black leaders have long been wary of Mr. Clinton, noting his support of the death penalty and his stewardship over Arkansas, a state without a civil rights law. The governor was accused during the campaign of holding the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson at arms length and ignoring the urban plight in an effort to win white suburban support.
Those same concerns will surface next month in the race for caucus chair, a contest that will pit Rep. Craig Washington of Texas, a strong Clinton supporter, against Mr. Mfume.
Though he backed Mr. Clinton, the Baltimore congressman has voiced the same concerns as Mr. Jackson and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, that Mr. Clinton has devoted little time to the urban ills that particularly effect black Americans, such as drugs, crime and poverty.
Mr. Mfume reportedly has expressed concern that tight economic times will make these secondary issues in a Clinton administration.
Mr. Washington, 51, said he supports Mr. Clinton's agenda to rebuild America with a jobs program, tax credits and health care reform, all of which will be helping African-Americans, too. And he chides black leaders who say more is needed.
"I don't think anything is left out," he said. "We ought to be singing off the same page. I see hope and merit in all the ideas Governor Clinton has laid out."
But other black leaders are continuing to view Mr. Clinton warily.
Milton Morris, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's premiere think tank on black-related issues, accused Mr. Clinton of having a "trickle-down mind-set."