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Mfume wants bill killed; Residency legislation would make him eligible for mayor; 'I'm not running'; But NAACP members express concern about leader's future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume is asking state legislators to kill a residency bill that could make him eligible to run for mayor of Baltimore, saying his work with the organization is not finished.

In a letter sent Friday, Mfume told Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who is co-sponsor of the legislation, he fears that a bill that would reduce the city's residency requirement for mayor from one year to six months is aimed at drawing him into the race.

"If that is in fact the intention of the proposed legislation I would respectfully ask that you withdraw it," he wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun.

Mfume -- who lives in Baltimore County and is not eligible to run for mayor under current law -- made the request amid growing concerns at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People about his future with the organization, which he has headed for two years.

" 'No' really means 'no,' " Mfume said in an interview yesterday. "I don't know how many ways I can say I'm not running."

Many political observers remain unconvinced that Mfume will remain out of the race. Several elected officials said privately last week that based on conversations with Mfume, they believe he is interested in the position and might run.

Mfume denied that yesterday, though he said he remains "absolutely" interested in politics.

"I suspect and always believed that one day I would eventually end up back in the Congress, but more specifically in the Senate," he said. "I would love to do that one day later in life, after one of the current senators steps down."

Asked if there were circumstances under which he might enter the race for mayor, Mfume laughed.

"I hate to say 'never' because you never know what the future would hold," he said.

Mfume also said he is looking to buy a house in the city, probably at the Inner Harbor.

Rawlings and others supporting the bill say the legislation is no longer aimed solely at Mfume.

The bill, Rawlings said, "is to provide an opportunity for the citizens of Baltimore to have the best choice possible, and he is one choice.

"So if he changes his mind, he won't be denied that opportunity," he said.

Rawlings said other potential candidates who live outside the city could benefit from the bill.

When pressed to name who might be on such a list, Rawlings mentioned two unlikely candidates -- Bill Jews, the chief executive officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Theo Rodgers, a politically well-connected developer. Neither has expressed interest in the post.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, the lead sponsor of the legislation, said she is not bothered by Mfume's public opposition to the bill.

"I personally think Kweisi Mfume would be an ideal candidate," Marriott said. "He would absolutely be my choice."

But, she added, "he cannot make a decision to run for mayor of Baltimore today" because he cannot legally run under the residency law.

Mfume was publicly drawn into the discussion last month after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek a fourth term in office.

Mfume's stance has led some political observers to say he is being cautious: If he throws his hat in the ring before he is eligible torun, the national board of the Baltimore-based NAACP could begin searching for a replacement before Mfume is sure he will leave.

Some board members said last week that they don't want to conduct such a search. Many say his departure would leave a vacuum at the organization, which is on solid footing after a tumultuous period of financial crisis and ethical scandal that ended about three years ago.

'We would feel a loss'

Many of the 64 members of the NAACP's national board have clogged telephone, fax and e-mail lines with discussion of whether their president and chief executive officer would leave. Though Mfume has sent faxes to board members to reassure them, some are worried.

"I would be very alarmed if for some reason he was still going to consider" running for mayor, said Jeanetta Williams, a national board member from Salt Lake City. "It would be unfortunate for the NAACP. We would feel a loss."

Julian Bond, chairman of the board, said, "If he left, he would leave us in the lurch. No one is indispensable and anyone can be replaced from the chairman to the whole organization, but it would be hard to match him. He brings so much to this job."

Mfume's background is not in civil rights, but politics -- and that is not lost on board members and other observers.

Joe Madison, a longtime board member from Maryland whose term expires in a few weeks, said, "I think he's playing a very clever political game that certainly keeps his name before the public and keeps people talking about him in a political sense.

"It's to his advantage to keep everybody guessing," Madison said.

Possible candidates

Among the almost dozen people who are considering a bid for mayor of Baltimore are Carl F. Stokes, a former city councilman and school board member; Mary W. Conaway, city register of wills; A. Robert Kaufman, a social and civil rights activist; City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, Mfume's cousin; city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt; city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy; and two community activists, Phillip A. Brown Jr. and Robert L. Marsili.

An early poll last summer identified Bell as a front-runner because of his name recognition and popularity. Rawlings began calling for an Mfume candidacy after Schmoke announced that he would not run again.

Schmoke has said the Mfume issue has prompted fears among candidates and potential candidates that big-money contributors will not commit to a campaign until they are sure the NAACP president won't run. That question may not be answered until the filing deadline in July.

Sun staff reporter Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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