Mfume may have aided residency bill; Letter on withdrawal could help passage


Having urged legislators to withdraw a bill that would make him eligible to run for mayor of Baltimore, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume might have made it easier to pass the legislation -- and for him to run eventually.

The bill's sponsors say they are determined to go forward, arguing their bill changes the rules for all -- an easier case to make after Mfume asked legislators not to pursue a bill crafted solely for him.

No one doubts that the residency bill had but one candidate in mind. But Mfume has done about all he can to declare he isn't interested in special treatment.

Even before Mfume's letter to Del. Howard P. Rawlings last weekend, advocates of reducing the residency requirement from 12 months to six had expected most of the arguments against their initiative:

That they were disparaging candidates in the race -- and turning the former congressman and City Council member into a carpetbagger.

That they were changing the law for a single person.

That such an action would usurp powers of the City Council.

Mfume, who lives in Catonsville, is buying property in the city. He could establish residency in time to meet the six-month requirement to run for mayor.

But the bill's sponsors have said the main issue is not Mfume. The issue is Baltimore -- its need for strong leadership and the importance of allowing voters to choose the best available leader. The legislation will likely pass, legislative leaders say. It provides that the shortened residency rule would have to be approved by the City Council.

Should the law be changed, Mfume could decide -- finally -- if he wants to take advantage of it. Those who are urging him to do so believe he would be foolish to make a commitment before the law is changed.

Asked Monday if he thought Mfume had an interest in the mayoralty, Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, said, "I don't like to waste my time." He wouldn't be pushing ahead with the bill if he thought Mfume had closed the door irrevocably.

As for the idea that Mfume shouldn't run because he lives a few blocks over the city line, Rawlings said, "It's just a farce to say he's an outsider."

It is even more farcical, he and others say, to allow an essentially abstract boundary to deny the city an able manager.

"Can the law be so restrictive that a native son can't come back and run for mayor?" asked state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the Senate bill.

State's role in city

If Mfume decides not to run, his predicament has renewed discussion in Annapolis of state government's role in the governance of Baltimore.

Led by Rawlings, the state has insisted that Baltimore follow through on school reforms and that it use state financial aid wisely.

Without a strong manager in City Hall, legislators say, their expectations could be in vain.

"The state has an enormous interest in the fiscal integrity and future of Baltimore," House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said.

Baltimore's boundaries are artificially reducing the city's financial, civic and leadership base, he said. Virtually no other major U.S. city has such a small "footprint," he said -- which makes it a relatively small island dislocated from sources of tax revenue, jobs and political talent.

Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, said having strong, respected leadership in Baltimore will influence the state's willingness to send more financial aid.

"If the city can prove to its neighbors that the performance of government is lean and mean and efficient, it will go a long way toward building good relations with the rest of the state," he said.

Opposition to effort

But the effort to make Mfume eligible to run has generated pointed opposition.

"Surely the talent pool in Baltimore City is not so bereft of leaders that you have to look beyond the borders for a decent candidate," wrote a former city resident who moved to Elkridge in Howard County.

If the residency requirement is too restrictive, critics say, it should be altered with due deliberation.

"You have to have a process that is evenhanded, based on the long-term stability of government and its ability to maintain the trust people need to have in government," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Ethics Committee.

Montague said Baltimoreans are left in an agonizing position. "The bill pits the integrity of the process against the immediate needs of the city -- or at least the perceived needs," he said.

Montague is among those who would favor Mfume for mayor, but oppose the legislation.

His opposition has little to do with the mayor's race, he said. Baltimore residents can sort through the available candidates for any race and throw out the ones who might move in quickly from outside the city to seek the mayoralty. The real problem, Montague said, is the potential for further erosion of the public's trust in evenhanded government.

Existing requirement

McFadden and others call the existing residency requirement artificial, arbitrary and reminiscent of voting rights restrictions that have historically kept African-Americans out of the political process.

McFadden said his legislation should not be regarded as a statement about the talent assembling. The time limit for residency is too long and should be shortened, he said, to permit people of ability to offer their services.

"I'm not disparaging anyone who's announced," McFadden said. "They're very good. They can do a good job. But it's important to have the very best."

In Annapolis

Highlights in Annapolis today:

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate meets. 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

Senate Budget and Taxation and House Appropriations committees briefing on Maryland Emergency Medical System Operations Fund. 2: 30 p.m. Room 130, House office building.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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