Same race, different starting points

The Baltimore Sun

When he first ran for office, Kweisi Mfume took a page out of what he calls the Muhammad Ali handbook of psychological warfare.

The former gang member, a newcomer to politics who had gained some celebrity as a local talk radio host, strode into the council chambers at City Hall and sat himself down in the chair normally occupied by the council member he was trying to unseat.

As Mfume describes the scene in his autobiography, council members, citizens and reporters were gathering for the afternoon meeting when he made his announcement: "I'm here," he said. "This is my seat."

What would follow has become the stuff of political legend, burnished with each new campaign brochure and magazine profile. He would win by just three votes - his new colleagues called him "Landslide" - launching a career that would lead to five elections to the U.S. House of Representatives, chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus and presidency of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He would cut his hair and replace his dashikis with monogrammed shirts. More significantly, he would learn how to build consensus, transforming himself from rabble-rousing confrontationalist to savvy horse trader, and winning praise from allies and adversaries alike.

But today, nearly three decades after that brash debut in council chambers, Mfume still is casting himself as the outsider.

Polls show him running even with U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate, but the challenges ahead are clear. He lacks the backing of what he calls the Democratic establishment - House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and others have endorsed Cardin - and his fundraising, which stalled early last year after allegations of impropriety during his tenure at the NAACP, lags behind that of his chief rival.

Mfume - his adopted African name is pronounced Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-may - says he is the underdog in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.

"I learned the hard way never to be overwhelmed by overwhelming odds," said Mfume, 57, who has never lost an election. "If there's any good thing about it, it's that it causes you to sharpen your skills, to hone your message, to test your grit and to believe in things unseen."

Without television advertising or institutional party support, Mfume has relied on personal contact with potential voters. A compelling speaker in front of a crowd and an attentive listener one-on-one, he has spent nearly 18 months traveling the state, telling his life story and explaining his liberal views to the public.

The approach is finding an audience. In Frederick this month, he visited Hartz & Co. Inc., a sewing shop of more than 200 workers that is slated for closing in October. When he emerged to face reporters outside, he brought with him several middle-aged women ready to pledge their support for his candidacy.

Born Frizzell Gray in 1948, when "Whites Only" and "Colored" signs still marked the public restrooms and drinking fountains of Baltimore County, the future congressman spent his early years in the black Dundalk enclave of Turners Station.

In his 1996 autobiography, No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream, Mfume writes of an impoverished childhood punctuated by the explosive temper of an abusive stepfather.

Young Frizzell found father figures in a Little League coach and, after his stepfather walked out and his mother moved the family to West Baltimore, the leader of a drum and bugle corps. When he was 16, he writes, his mother, sick with cancer, died in his arms.

Frizzell and three younger sisters were divided among relatives, and he soon dropped out of school. In his autobiography, he describes an adolescence of drinking and taking drugs, running numbers and shooting craps. He was arrested 13 times, he writes, and had fathered five sons by four women by the age of 22.

Then came what Mfume calls the miracle of his life. He was playing dice with buddies on a West Baltimore street corner one Friday night when he felt a strange calm come over him. He saw his mother, dead then more than seven years, looking at him first with sadness, then with love.

God was giving him an opportunity to start over, Mfume says, and he resolved to straighten out his life. At the Community College of Baltimore, he edited the school newspaper and co-founded the Black Student Union. At Morgan State University, he helped to start a student radio station and worked to bring such speakers as James Baldwin, Angela Davis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to campus.

And he asked an aunt traveling in Africa to bring home a name. Frizzell Gray became Kweisi Mfume, "conquering son of kings."

It's the name by which Baltimore would come to know its newest radio personality. On WEBB and later WEAA, Mfume spun records by Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and racism in Baltimore.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who would succeed Mfume in Maryland's 7th District and as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, first came to know him through his talk show.

"He brought a refreshing voice to politics," said Cummings, who has yet to endorse a candidate in the primary. "He seemed to be very clear on the issues, and he seemed to have a strong consciousness with regard to the issues that affected the people in the city."

Mfume says it was the urging of radio callers that spurred his run for Baltimore City Council in 1979. Saying officials were pouring time and money into the Inner Harbor, neglecting blighted neighborhoods just blocks away, he campaigned to "Beat the Bosses" in City Hall.

Once on the council, he often found himself isolated - or isolated himself. He would introduce attention-grabbing resolutions, such as a proposal to declare a holiday on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., only to see them go down in defeat.

"I had to learn how to count," Mfume said. "I would go out and I would make the argument, and I'd fight the good fight. ... [But] I was in the minority on every vote."

It was Clarence H. Du Burns, the council president and future mayor, who advised him.

"He'd always say you had to learn how to count to 10, because it was an 18-member council," Mfume said. "You've got to find people who don't agree, you've got to get them to agree. You've got to find the points that they agree on, and you lace that together, and that's how you build a consensus."

Mary Pat Clarke, a council member then and now, watched Mfume learn from that advice.

"Kweisi became quite an esteemed coalition builder," Clarke said. "Of course, I always loved that renegade in him, and he never lost that. But he also reached out very effectively to a wide spectrum of political views."

By his second term, he was looking for a larger arena. When eight-term Rep. Parren Mitchell announced his retirement in 1986, Mfume declared his candidacy for Congress.

A month before the election, Mfume's Republican opponent, the Rev. St. George I.B. Crosse III, called reporters and cameramen to Laurence G. Paquin High School. Outside the school for pregnant teenagers, Crosse gave a speech in which he detailed Mfume's record as a teenage father.

The gambit failed. Mfume had maintained relationships with his five sons, and he won the election with 87 percent of the vote.

In Washington, Mfume contributed to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. He served on the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and chaired the Joint Economic Committee.

But it was as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus that he gained national prominence.

He assumed leadership of the predominantly Democratic bloc after the 1992 election, when its numbers grew from 26 members to 40. The emerging power declared its independence early in President Bill Clinton's first term. Members gave Clinton the votes he needed to pass his first budget, but sparred with him over what Mfume said was insufficient support for an urban aid package. The bloc was instrumental in pushing for U.S. military intervention to restore deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

Former Rep. Craig Washington, a Texas Democrat who had challenged Mfume for the chairmanship of the caucus, says his colleagues were right to have elected Mfume.

"He was very articulate, and became a wonderful spokesman for the caucus at a period when his leadership and ability was probably needed most," said Washington, now an attorney in Houston. "He seemed to be prepared whenever he worked either within the caucus or on other matters."

Mfume startled the Democratic leadership and some caucus members in 1993 when he announced that the caucus would enter into a "sacred covenant" with the Nation of Islam, consulting with leader Louis Farrakhan's controversial organization on social policy.

In a recent interview, Mfume said his intent was to work with the Nation of Islam to combat black-on-black violence in communities where the Nation enjoyed more credibility than the NAACP or the Urban League. He said his mistake was in describing the relationship as a "covenant," with its religious connotations.

The relationship cooled after a Farrakhan aide gave a speech in which he said Jews were the "bloodsuckers" of the black community, called Pope John Paul II a "no-good cracker" and called for mob murder of white South Africans.

It was while Mfume was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus that one of his sons was accused of raping a woman in Atlanta after a date. Michael Mfume pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of sexual battery and was sentenced to a $1,000 fine and a year's probation.

Five years later, another son would plead guilty to federal drug conspiracy and weapons charges after acknowledging that he had been selling drugs in Washington. Ronald Gray was sentenced in 2000 to four years and nine months in prison.

"It's a parent's worst nightmare," Mfume said of his sons' arrests. "When something like that happens, it tears your heart out. But, as a parent, you love them more, and you help them through their situation."

The end of Mfume's two-year term as chairman of the Black Caucus in 1995 coincided with the arrival of the first Republican majority to the House of Representatives in 40 years. Mfume had won a fifth term by a wide margin, but when the NAACP approached him about heading the organization, he accepted.

"A lot of people probably thought I may have lost my senses, because of the state of the organization at the time," he said. "I had to ask myself, do I just pontificate, or am I prepared to sacrifice and try to make a difference?"

He assumed control of an organization $3.2 million in debt, beset by infighting among board members, reeling from a sexual-harassment scandal under his predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., and facing questions about its continuing relevance in the struggle for civil rights.

Mfume accepted the $200,000-a-year job and settled in to work.

He renegotiated the organization's obligations with its creditors and slashed costs at national headquarters in Baltimore, cutting more than a dozen staff members. By the end of the year, he announced that the organization had retired its debt.

With the financial outlook improved, Mfume launched a series of high-profile campaigns targeting racial discrimination in the hotel industry and on network television. He revived a youth and college division to strengthen membership on campuses and started a prison project with chapters in 39 penal institutions. During his tenure, the organization registered millions of voters.

In 1999, after Kurt L. Schmoke declined to seek a fourth term as Baltimore mayor, Cummings, Burns and former mayors William Donald Schaefer and Thomas D'Alesandro III joined a draft movement calling on Mfume to run for post.

After months flirting with a return to politics, Mfume said he could not leave the NAACP before his work there was finished. He did suggest he might be interested in a run for the Senate, if a seat came open.

Under Mfume, the NAACP clashed openly with President Bush.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, the organization's National Voter Fund ran a television ad linking the then-Texas governor with the murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to death by three white men with a pickup truck. After reaching the White House, Bush became the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover to decline to address the group; he described his relationship with the group as "basically nonexistent."

After NAACP Chairman Julian Bond gave a blistering speech against Bush during the 2004 campaign, the Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation to determine whether the organization was violating its tax-exempt status by engaging in a political campaign. The investigation is continuing.

Mfume surprised NAACP members at the end of 2004 when he announced his resignation from the organization. After almost nine years of traveling up to 200 days a year, he said, he wanted to spend time with his youngest son.

Mfume, who lives in downtown Baltimore, earned $250,000 in his last year at the NAACP and received a $125,000 severance package, according to a public financial disclosure report filed by the campaign. After leaving the organization, he made as much as $17,000 per speaking engagement at colleges, churches and other venues.

Mfume planned to finish a book about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and to enjoy his Orioles season tickets with his sons. But less than four months after he left the NAACP, Sarbanes announced that he would not seek a sixth term in the Senate. On the next business day, Mfume became the first Democrat to declare his candidacy.

"I didn't have to think about whether or not I was going to run," he said. "It just seemed like when one door closes, another one opens, and that's been the story of my life."

It was after Mfume joined the race that allegations began to surface of sexual favoritism at the NAACP during his tenure. A pair of internal memos that were leaked to news organizations detailed claims that female staff members who were close to Mfume or his son received raises or promotions.

The memos did not draw conclusions about the veracity of the claims. But a board member and former officer of the NAACP told The Sun last year that the organization's executive committee had evaluated Mfume and delivered a no-confidence vote.

Mfume has acknowledged having an affair with an employee, which he told reporters "was a boneheaded thing to do." But he denies any favoritism during his tenure and says he did not receive a no-confidence vote.

He described the claims as "unproven and unsubstantiated allegations" that had been leaked to the press by some person or persons who hoped that they would force him out of the Senate race.

But he plowed ahead with the contest. Mfume had raised $759,000 through June 30, compared to Cardin's $4.83 million. He says the difference owes partly to his refusal to take money from corporate interests. Including receipts since the last reporting period, his campaign now says it has raised more than $1.1 million.

On the stump, Mfume speaks of increasing education funding, improving access to health care, and developing a timetable for troop withdrawals from Iraq. As a U.S. senator, he says, he would support small-business development, enact a federal living wage and make fighting poverty a national priority.

Back on the campaign trail after the constraints of heading an organization that was supposed to be nonpartisan, Mfume says he is enjoying himself.

"I enjoy having a partisan opinion, and I enjoy being able to say what I feel about issues of government," he said. "Now that I'm kind of free to do this again, it's a good feeling. Because I've got some opinions - doesn't mean that they're right - but I've got opinions that I don't have to bottle up any more."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Andrew Schneider and Fred Schulte contributed to this article.

Kweisi Mfume

Democrat Date of Birth: Oct. 24, 1948

Education: Morgan State University, B.S. in urban studies and transportation systems, 1976; Johns Hopkins University, Master of Liberal Arts concentrating in international affairs, 1984.

Professional Experience: program director, WEAA 1977-1987; Baltimore City Council, 1979-1987; U.S. House of Representatives, 1987-1995; chairman, Congressional Black Caucus, 1993-1995; chairman, Joint Economic Committee, 1994-1995; member, Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs; president and chief executive officer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1995-2004.

Personal: Divorced; sons Kweisi Jr., Kevin, Keith, Ronald, Michael and Christopher; seven grandchildren.

MFUME // ON THE ISSUES

Abortion

Under Mfume in 2004, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declared its support for keeping abortion legal. Mfume says he would have voted to allow military personnel and their dependents overseas to use their own funds to obtain abortions in military hospitals, and would have voted against a bill that would have prohibited the transportation of minors across state lines to obtain abortion services without the consent of a parent or guardian.

Education

Mfume has been endorsed by the Maryland State Teachers Association. He favors full funding for Head Start, funding for students with disabilities and special education needs, and greater focus on teacher training and retention. He says he would "fund and fix" No Child Left Behind.

Iraq

Mfume says he would have voted against the October 2002 resolution to authorize President Bush to use military force in Iraq. Through a spokesman, he says he opposes U.S. involvement in Iraq's sectarian violence and wants to start bringing U.S. troops home to a hero's welcome.

Labor

Mfume favors raising the minimum wage to $7.50 per hour. He has been endorsed by Unite Here, the American Federation of State, County and Muncipal Employees Local 422, the Fraternal Order of Police of Prince George's County, Service Employees International Union locals 32BJ and 400PG and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994.

Trade

Mfume voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and says he would have voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. He says all trade agreements must have strong labor, environmental and human rights provisions to protect American workers.

Sources: Mfume for U.S. Senate, OnTheIssues.org, candidate interviews.

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