WASHINGTON -- Confronted with the unhappy prospect of being left outside the national spotlight he has enjoyed for the past two years, Rep. Kweisi Mfume sent a letter yesterday to his Democratic colleagues, telling them he plans to be a candidate for an unspecified "leadership position" in the next Congress.
"Our party will face a difficult set of challenges over the next two years," Mr. Mfume said in the letter seeking support from Democrats running in the November elections. "We will require strong voices in leadership that are prepared to stand up for our members and respect all points of view."
In his letter, the Baltimore Democrat does not say which leadership post he is interested in. With some Democratic incumbents ousted in primary elections and others -- including Speaker Thomas S. Foley -- in danger of being toppled in November, major changes could be in store for the House Democratic leadership. Last year, Mr. Mfume -- who has said that he aspires to be speaker of the House -- expressed interest in becoming chairman of the Democratic Caucus. But he decided not to run for the post, clearing the way for Rep. Vic Fazio of California.
"In this place, you have to at least keep your options open, because otherwise everyone will assume they're closed," Mr. Mfume said.
For the past two years, Mr.Mfume, who was first elected to the House in 1986, has chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, a post that catapulted him into national prominence. Under Mr. Mfume, the caucus became an important player on several issues, including the invasion of Haiti, the Clinton tax and deficit-reduction package and the crime bill.
Mr. Mfume's smooth style, rags-to-riches personal story and the prominence of the Congressional Black Caucus under his leadership helped make him a media favorite. He has been featured in many national publications and is a regular on national news shows.
But the Black Caucus chairmanship rotates every two years. That means that Mr. Mfume will not be chairman if, as expected, he retains his seat in Congress next year.
In addition to his high-profile role with the caucus, Mr. Mfume assumed the chairmanship of the Joint Economic Committee last summer, becoming the first black to control that influential panel. The Joint Economic Committee does not handle legislation, but it employs a staff of economists who issue an annual economic report to Congress. The panel also conducts monthly hearings, at which the Bureau of Labor Statistics unveils national unemployment figures, and it serves as a kind of think tank for Congress.
The chairmanship gave Mr. Mfume another national platform -- ++ but it is also one he will relinquish next year because the post reverts to the Senate in the next Congress.