The best choice for a tough job


IN THIS dispiriting political season comes a ray of hope: Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, is considered a possible candidate for mayor of Baltimore.

Also, some state lawmakers wisely are planning to cut Baltimore's residency requirement for political office from a year to six months so Mr. Mfume, a Catonsville resident, could run if he decides to.

Baltimore is at a crossroads this mayoral election year.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke, cerebral, decent, but understandably burned out, leaves with a mixed record. Under his quiet leadership, the Inner Harbor and Canton have been revitalized, but many of the neighborhoods are in further decline along with many schools. Sadly, too, the high murder rate -- a product of the illegal drug trade -- continues unabated.

Uninspiring slate

The list of announced candidates is less than inspiring, although former city councilman and school board member Carl Stokes brings much energy and commitment. So the hope is that Mr. Mfume, having finished three years of yeoman work in rehabilitating the pocketbook and pride of the venerable NAACP, will put his proven talents to work here.

No new mayor, even with the impressive credentials of Mr. Mfume, will bring a magic wand to erase these troubles. Having accumulated over time, they have become endemic. Though realism demands we not look to him as a savior, Mr. Mfume's life seems to have prepared him for this moment.

Troubled early life

His troubled journey -- which included street hustling, adolescent promiscuity (which produced five illegitimate sons), encounters with guns and the death of friends and a period of militancy -- is set forth fully and without varnish in his autobiography, "No Free Ride."

Despite all, he twice won City Council races, served five terms in Congress, became leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and now heads the NAACP. The tough streets he will surely come to govern if he runs are known to him.

Equally important, in his many positions of power, he has learned the need for the politics of inclusion. Our city is still diverse; it must remain so with all constituencies having a voice if it is to survive and prosper.

Legislators seeking to amend residency requirements for his candidacy know he is no carpetbagger. His life has been one of service to this city. In his book, Mr. Mfume tells of the greatest lesson learned from a perfectionist who trained his neighborhood's drum and bugle corps saying: "He taught me to put aside doubt and listen to my own inner voice."

Right now, our beloved but battered town needs a break. It will get one if the inner voice of Mr. Mfume tells him to try to become its mayor.

Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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