Dousing rampant rumors about his own potential candidacy -- and throwing Baltimore's mayoral race wide open -- NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced yesterday that he will not seek to become the city's next mayor.
"I am not now nor will I be a candidate for next year's election," Mfume said at the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, just two days after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke formally announced he would not seek a fourth term. "It is not time for me to change course. It is not time for me to push on."
He added, "It was never my intent to be thrown into the discussion. However, the press and attendant publicity that has gone into it in the last couple of days has fueled a lot of unnecessary distraction. It's not fair to my association."
Since Schmoke's announcement, the NAACP has received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from citizens urging Mfume to make a bid for the office.
His decision to remain out of the race leaves a wide-open field, with at least seven city and state officials either running or considered likely candidates next year -- the first election in almost 30 years in which an incumbent city mayor will not seek re-election.
Mfume said the hotly contested campaign could be ripe for mud-slinging and called for remaining candidates to agree to a code of conduct: to discuss issues and not engage in personal attacks.
"I really abhor persons who would use a process like this to fuel their ego," he said, without specifying anyone.
Although the NAACP, based in Baltimore, does not endorse candidates, Mfume's personal endorsement is already being courted.
City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and state Del. Howard P. Rawlings all are considered potential candidates.
City school board member Carl Stokes has said that he is definitely running.
Stokes said that he had not expected Mfume to enter the race but that his announcement not to run "will make for a more interesting race. I think Kweisi would have frozen some people from entering the race. That means it's a larger field, a more wide-open field."
Jessamy said Mfume has supported her throughout her political career and said she will seek his backing in her run for mayor. "I do intend to have conversations with him," she said, adding that Mfume had been "totally anointed" to the mayoral post.
Henson said it was too early even to be discussing the way the race will shape up.
"The race is in 1999," he said. "There is no race now. This is people playing games."
Pratt said, "There are a lot of good leaders considering running in 1999, and I consider myself among that group." She said that, should she decide to enter the race, she would "welcome Mr. Mfume's support."
Mfume is related to one potential candidate -- Bell is his cousin. As to whether he would endorse the City Council president, Mfume said, "To me, this is about a lot more than blood relations. It's about what's best for the city."
Asked how Bell responded when told he would not enter the race, Mfume let out a loud sigh -- apparently mimicking a sigh of relief. "No, he didn't say that," he said, laughing. "He thanked me for calling. We talked about family business."
Schmoke, who could not be reached for comment, was out of town yesterday, according to Clinton Coleman, the mayor's spokesman.
Mfume said NAACP officials urged him not to leave the organization, which he has helped recover from financial insolvency and scandal in just under three years as president and CEO. He e-mailed NAACP officials yesterday with his decision, he said.
Asked if he had been close to deciding to enter the race, Mfume said, "Close is relative. We all have considered things like that. The idea of a draft movement is very flattering, honoring and very humbling."
Mfume cited a list of concerns, including affirmative action roll-backs and threats to Social Security, that he still wants to address through the NAACP.
"I do expect to be with the NAACP until they no longer want me or until I feel my work is done here," he said. "I'm not afraid of moving on."
The Rev. Morris L. Shearin, an NAACP national board member from Washington, said he never put much stock in the rumors of Mfume's candidacy -- but is happy that Mfume has reaffirmed his commitment to lead the organization.
"It was purely rumor," Shearin said. "He brings the experience of having been in the political arena, and he knows what we're struggling to get to. For him to go back and get in that arena would do a double-take."
Shearin added, "But, I don't think he's at his pinnacle as a leader or as a future politician. He can represent us in whatever capacity."
Pub Date: 12/06/98