Flame of Colin Powell's presidential ambitions is kept alive in Largo apartment


WASHINGTON -- Colin L. Powell has a friend in Largo, whether he likes it or not.

He's a man with a mustache and fleecy white hair, and a determination to advance the political fortunes of the Army general who headed the nation's military during the Persian Gulf war.

How? By getting the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to run for president -- as a Republican.

The man's name is Burrell L. Haselrig Jr. He is 74 and has never met General Powell, though he is the founder and chairman of the Exploratory Draft Powell for President Committee, which he operates out of his apartment just outside the Capital Beltway in Largo.

One of his rooms is called the "Powell Room." It is filled with bumper stickers and campaign buttons advertising the man who, according to a recent Times-Mirror poll, is the most popular public figure in America.

"We have had no contact with Powell," said Mr. Haselrig. But he is sure that he and the other 5,000 to 6,000 volunteers attached to the committee around the country are not wasting their time proselytizing for the general.

"We are convinced absolutely that he's running," said Mr. Haselrig. He is also certain that General Powell, now retired and busy these days writing his memoirs, knows of the committee's efforts on his behalf.

That was confirmed by a Powell spokesman. "We're aware that this single committee is out there," said Peggy Cifrino. "But the general doesn't meet with them."

So who is Burrell L. Haselrig Jr., and why is he doing this?

He is a black businessman from Pennsylvania who has involved himself for the past 50 years in Republican politics. His purpose has been to make a place for black leaders within the party, which he believes has traditionally excluded people of color.

"That was the reason they lost [the presidency] in 1992," he said.

In 1960, Mr. Haselrig created what he called the "first black Republican council in the country," within the Pennsylvania Republican Party. He was an alternate delegate to two national GOP conventions.

In 1976, he was one of the prime movers behind an unsuccessful effort to get President Gerald R. Ford to choose then-Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke as his vice presidential running mate.

In fact, Mr. Haselrig's whole life has been studded with moments of pride and insult. As a first-grader in Johnstown he was called a racial epithet and it reduced him to tears. But his self-esteem was rescued by a grandmother who predicted he would one day become president, impressing upon him that such immense possibilities existed, even for black people.

Later in life, after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, he said he was denied a position as an accountant with the Pennsylvania state civil service because of his race. "I vowed then I would never work for anyone else," he said. "I would work for myself."

So he did. He formed his own contracting business, which he still runs. He moved to the Washington area about six years ago, after his wife, Hazel, died. A painting of her, when she was young, adorns a wall of the Largo apartment.

That Mr. Haselrig's grandmother's prediction never came true doesn't seem to have disappointed him. He said he takes pride in the progress of American blacks.

He recalled a dinner at the D.C. Armory 15 years ago, an African-American salute to black general officers. "It was Aug. 12, 1980. There were 76 black generals," he remembered. "No one would have believed we could have come that far."

Mr. Haselrig first noticed Mr. Powell when the general was appointed national security adviser by President Ronald Reagan 1987. Mr. Haselrig followed his career through the gulf war and its aftermath before deciding to try to do for him what he failed to do for Senator Brooke, propel him into the arena of presidential politics.

The draft Powell committee was registered with the Federal Election Commission in September. So far the panel has not told the FEC the amount of money it has raised, though Mr. Haselrig said the report "should be due very shortly." He estimated the committee had only raised a few hundred dollars so far.

General Powell was able to evoke in Mr. Haselrig an experience similar to one he had at the armory dinner. It came during a speech the general made last month at the Kennedy Center.

"He had me on the edge of my chair," Mr. Haselrig said. "I was bursting with pride to see him speaking to this vast audience, 80 percent white. I couldn't have had a better feeling than I had that night."

But for Mr. Haselrig, and others of his party, a vital question remains unanswered: Is General Powell a Republican? His staff laughs off the question. The general has declined to say. He is registered in Virginia, where voters are not required to give affiliations, and the general has given none. Could he be a Democrat?

If he is, said Mr. Haselrig, "I'm going to still support him," evidently slightly shocked at his own possible defection from a life-long commitment to the Republican Party.

Mr. Haselrig sees it as both a test for the party, and an opportunity: A way to repudiate the exclusionism that has saddened Mr. Haselrig throughout his life. And a way to win back the White House.

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