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Race for mayor stalled; Possibility of Mfume dominates early field for Sept. primary; 'I keep saying no'; Revision of rule on residency possible


Efforts to create a campaign for shadow mayoral candidate Kweisi Mfume appear to be picking up steam, even as the NAACP president continues publicly to deny that he will run for Baltimore's top political post.

Eight months before Baltimore's primary election, the city's mayoral contest -- the first in more than a decade without an incumbent -- is growing increasingly muddled.

With the Mfume chatter, front-runners are not emerging. Would-be candidates are hesitating. And state lawmakers continue with their attempt to cut Baltimore's residency requirement for political office from a year to six months so Mfume can run.

While many push for a Mfume candidacy, the president of the nation's most prominent civil rights organization is publicly distancing himself from the mayor's race.

"I've tried to be consistent, and I've tried to be polite to people," Mfume said yesterday. "I don't want people to think I'm jerking them around -- I keep saying no.

"But I walk into a barbershop and they say, 'Yeah, we know you're gonna do it,' and cabdrivers say, 'You gotta do it, you gotta do it.' "

City and state political leaders said support for Mfume is being fueled by constant signals that he is interested in the job.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he asked Mfume this week if he is running and he did not say no. "He gave me his million-dollar smile and just said, 'I'll talk to you later.' I think that he's still thinking about it."

At the offices of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, staff members are worried that Mfume will return to politics.

"We desperately need his leadership and cannot afford for him to leave," said Jamal Harrison-Bryant, director of the NAACP's youth and college division. "As much as Baltimore needs him, the nation needs him more."

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat, said yesterday he will introduce a bill in the state Senate to change the city's residency requirement, as legislators in the House of Delegates are proposing.

The bill would allow Mfume -- who lives in Baltimore County -- to move to Baltimore, establish legal residency and run for mayor in time for September's primary. Mfume has said he is looking for a home in the Inner Harbor. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation, predicted strong support for the bill among city senators such as Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"There are several senators with leadership positions who will be supporting this bill," McFadden said.

Such a change is likely to be controversial. Sen. Clarence W. Blount said he would not take a major role in the debate because of his trouble with residency requirements during last year's state election. He predicted, however, that the bill would raise the ire of some legislators and mayoral candidates.

"It's not going to be an easy thing to do," Blount said.

Schmoke said he believes the voters should decide on changes to the city Charter. And some mayoral candidates said it seems inappropriate to make such a decision during an election year.

The speculation that Mfume will run for mayor has upset a race in which his cousin, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, was expected to be the front-runner, based on a poll last summer and the views of political observers. Bell and a half-dozen others have declared their candidacies or voiced interest in running.

Some influential political leaders such as state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, don't believe that Bell is a strong candidate. Rawlings, with the support of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., has been urging Mfume to run, calling the list of candidates "frightening to people."

Bell, who has been growing increasingly frustrated with the speculation about his cousin, said Mfume called him this week to say he is not running for mayor.

"He told me he's not running," Bell said. "He's my family. I have respect for him. I just know what he said to me."

Other mayoral hopefuls in the Democratic Party said they are undaunted by Mfume's potential candidacy.

"I declared my candidacy," said Mary W. Conaway, city register of wills. "I'm out there as a candidate. I want to talk about the issues. People in Baltimore are fearful for their lives."

Carl Stokes, a former school board member and city councilman, said he continues to receive support from those who promised to help him before he declared his candidacy. Stokes said he will run with or without Mfume.

"It's not affecting us " Stokes said. "We're not basing our candidacy on who may or may not run."

Mayoral candidate and civic activist A. Robert Kaufman said he also is moving forward. Kaufman said he spoke with Mfume this week and was assured that he is not a candidate for mayor.

"He assured me unequivocally that he is not running for mayor," Kaufman said. "I didn't get the impression that he was pulling a Bill Clinton on me."

Community activists Phillip A. Brown Jr. and Robert L. Marsili also are running.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said she is raising money to conduct a poll for the election and plans to decide in the next 30 days whether she will run for mayor or seek re-election as comptroller.

Mfume remains a key factor in how the city's race shapes up. "There are some people that will say that his potential candidacy freezes some fund-raisers, some activities, all of which benefits other candidates," Schmoke said. "It's all just politics. [The politics will] continue this way up until the first of July, which is the filing deadline."

Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron, Erin Texeira and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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