IT'S TIME to say sober things about the mayoral race and what has passed for public discussion thereof. First, we're supposed to have a race. You know, where the candidates declare for office and say why they are running.
Instead, there are shadow mayoral campaigns by the front-runners -- City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and his cousin, Kweisi Mfume, with quiet, serious campaigning by former City Council member Carl Stokes and a few other wannabes.
The ugliest part is the rampant speculation and outright pandering to get Mr. Mfume to step in and take all the marbles.
Mr. Mfume certainly is a wonderful man. His autobiography says so, and so do many observers.
But are these marbles really his alone, without so much as an on-the-record request?
Let's check the points in his favor. Mr. Mfume, as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has an exemplary record. He's a moving speaker, and he has cleaned up a terrible deficit. And, with help from Myrlie Evers-Williams, former board chairwoman, and a few well-placed friends, he has rooted out dead wood and put the nation's oldest civil rights group back on track.
Is he fit to be mayor? Maybe.
In the House of Representatives, the former Baltimore City Council member was a scrapper, opposing right-wing attacks on minority rights, using spell-binding oratory to support programs that help the less fortunate and helping to push budget alternatives that reshaped the national agenda.
So far so good. But has this man actually asked to be Baltimore's mayor? This is, after all, a big city with a nearly $2 billion budget.
As for Mr. Bell, voters can see that he has plotted his moves carefully, rising to comment on pressing issues around the city -- at times beating Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to the scene of an outcry.
Many people say Mr. Bell isn't ready for the mayor's office -- that he's still learning the ins and outs of City Hall and politics. But he has been written off before: Recall the last race for City Council president, when Mr. Bell was considered the underdog.
Mr. Stokes, an intelligent, articulate speaker is running a competent campaign, but it will be hard for him to build support. He's running from a weak power base, having lost badly in a run for City Council president, and having antagonized what might have been allies in East Baltimore with a run at the legislative seat held by state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden.
Add in West Baltimore's general disdain for east side candidates and Mr. Stokes clearly faces some steep hills. Like many other wannabes.
So, is it Mr. Mfume or no one? I don't think so.
Certainly, it is unseemly to cut the residency requirement for the office, publicly unasked, to open a way for a campaign Mr. Mfume has eschewed.
Also, it is downright obscene of Mfume supporters to quietly talk of raising the $95,000 mayor's salary by $55,000, unasked, just so Mr. Mfume will feel comfortable seeking the job. Mr. Schmoke, who gave this city 12 years of his life, probably finds that interesting.
If there are good reasons Mr. Mfume should abandon the NAACP, let him say so -- up front, on the record.
Then let's have a serious discussion on what he would do in City Hall. How would he improve the schools? Or the port? Or the city's decaying neighborhoods?
Mr. Mfume knows what it means to campaign for high office. Let's have his best shot and end the spectacle of top politicians treating the mayoral race like an arranged marriage, dressing out the chief executive's suite in ribbon and bunting, with the city breathlessly awaiting the ardor of the anointed man.
Garland L. Thompson is a former Sun editorial writer and former editor of the NAACP's Crisis magazine. He is editorial director of two magazines published by Career Communications Group Inc. in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 3/25/99