Mfume said he doesn't have any immediate plans to seek a political post, but that it's a possibility in the future. He declined to say what political office he might seek.
"I never rule anything out," said Mfume, noting that he is approaching his eighth year with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "I'm not a candidate now, but I can't rule out future possibilities. I'm happy here, I believe in finishing a job, but I really did not come here to stay."
Mfume turned down calls from supporters who wanted him to run for mayor of Baltimore in 1999. A political ally, Mayor Martin O'Malley, is expected to run for governor in the next election, and Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings is firmly entrenched in the 7th District seat once held by Mfume.
One seat that might prove attractive is that held by Maryland's senior U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, whose term expires in 2006. Sarbanes, a Democrat who recently turned 71, has not announced whether he plans to seek re-election.
When Mfume resigned from the 7th District seat in 1996 to head the NAACP, his congressional campaign committee had $188,456 in cash. The committee still had $112,742 at the end of last year. Since 1996, the committee has donated $29,000 to Democratic candidates, and $4,000 in soft money to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Mfume's committee also has donated $45,000 to the NAACP and local charities, according to records compiled through PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign funds.
Last year, Mfume's committee gave $12,000 to candidates. In the hotly contested Democratic primary for the City Council presidency, incumbent Sheila Dixon received $3,000. Her chief rival, Catherine E. Pugh, received $2,000. Dixon garnered 54 percent of the vote in defeating Pugh and two others.
Mfume's committee also gave $2,000 to Mary Pat Clarke, a former council president making a political comeback. Clarke won the Democratic primary race in the new 14th council district.
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. -- a member of a well-known West Baltimore political family -- received $1,000. State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, who represents an East Baltimore district, received $2,000. O'Malley received a $2,000 contribution from Mfume during his first bid for mayor in 1999, but Mfume did not contribute to his campaign last year.
Mfume said most of his donations went to politicians who are personal friends. The donations are relatively small, but well-placed. The beneficiaries of Mfume's largess could prove to be valuable allies if he decides to make a political bid.
Mfume is not the only former House member to maintain a campaign committee after leaving Congress. Under federal election law, campaign money can be spent for a variety of purposes, such as defraying election costs, donations to charities and contributions to "national, state or local" political committees.
Republican Constance A. Morella was defeated in the 8th District congressional race in 2002, but her campaign committee is still active.
Her committee had $32,382 in cash at the close of last year, according to PoliticalMoneyLine. It reported no contributions from individuals or political action committees and it had no debts. The committee's receipts totaled $28,473 -- money from refunds and rebates on prior spending -- and it disbursed $20,980.
Morella contributed $2,000 to the campaign of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents Maryland's 1st District, and $1,000 to The Wish List, a pro-abortion group.
The contributions from Mfume's campaign fund have rekindled criticism from Republicans who say the NAACP has become a mouthpiece for Democrats.
David Tufaro, the GOP candidate in the Baltimore mayor's race in 1999, said he is outraged by the NAACP's treatment of President Bush. While campaigning for the White House in 2000, Bush attended the NAACP convention in Baltimore, where he received a polite but unenthusiastic reception.
Later during the campaign, the NAACP's National Voter Fund ran a TV ad featuring Renee Mullins, the daughter of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death by three white men in a pickup truck in Texas. In the ad, Mullins said when then-Texas Governor Bush turned down her plea for state hate-crime legislation, "it was like my father was killed all over again."
"Mfume would be better served being totally nonpartisan," said Tufaro. "The Bush attack ads might have hurt the organization more than it helped. Who knows, they might have caused a backlash in the Florida election. The NAACP is undermining its own legitimacy by being partisan."
Walter E. Williams, an African-American who is a Libertarian and teaches economics at George Mason University, said there is no question that the NAACP "marches lockstep with the Democrats." Williams said the NAACP pays too much attention to politics and not nearly enough to education, which in his view is the most important issue facing the black community.
After learning that Mfume was dabbling in politics through his congressional campaign committee, Williams said: "Is the NAACP's mission to help black people in general or particular black people in government? The black community has major problems, but they're not civil rights problems. If a civil rights group was needed, young blacks would take over the NAACP. But right now, a civil rights group is not needed; the civil rights battle is over, and it's been won."
Mfume said his critics are unable to separate his role as an individual from his role as NAACP president.
"The organization is nonpartisan, but that doesn't mean I am," Mfume said, adding, "I had my beliefs before I came here, and I'll have them long after I'm gone."
Mfume said he has given to Democrats because the contributors to his campaign expect him to direct the money to candidates with similar political views. He said he'd consider contributing to Republicans, but no GOP campaign organization has asked him for money.
Mfume has also contributed $45,000 to charities and scholarship funds, including an $8,000 donation to the NAACP made shortly after he became its president. Federal Election Commission records show that he has given $7,000 to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, $15,000 to scholarships and $15,000 to Baltimore's African-American Heritage Festival.
When Mfume took the NAACP job in mid-February 1996, the organization was running $3.2 million in the red. Eight months later, the NAACP announced that the debt had been erased through belt-tightening and a stepped-up fund-raising campaign.
Donald Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he is not surprised that Mfume has maintained the campaign committee because it helps him keep his options open. Mfume's political contributions aren't an issue unless the NAACP's board is concerned about them, he added.
Norris said Mfume took a "nearly moribund organization and breathed new life into it." Republicans view the NAACP as biased because the GOP has positions that are diametrically opposed to those held by the civil rights group, he said, adding: "The problem isn't the NAACP, it's the Republicans."