For Mitchell campaign, financial questions a challenge and a test

The Baltimore Sun

We moan about their cost and their length, but political campaigns provide useful tools for choosing leaders. Campaigns are often high-intensity affairs, mimicking the rigors of office-holding. They demand disciplined organizations, dogged adherence to schedule and strategy, skilled handling of media and care of other people's money - their contributions.

Ideally, campaigns convey a sense of the candidate's hopes and dreams - and whether he or she has a clue about how to turn them into reality.

That's why questions arising from the mayoral campaign of Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. must be answered. If the campaign can't handle money contributed by his supporters, how much confidence can Baltimoreans have in his ability to handle the millions that cities spend every day?

So far, Mayor Sheila Dixon has made no comparable slips. Her campaign has been criticized mostly for timidity, for playing to avoid mistakes rather than to lay out an exciting and bold approach to the city's many problems.

She's chosen to limit her appearances at public debate forums, and she has offered few issue papers - frustrating voters who may wish to know more about her and her plans. She's relatively new to the office, after all, so she ought to be more open and forthcoming. Instead, she's nursing a lead in the polls - good politics, maybe, but not good leadership.

Front-runners can do this if they choose. They can avoid commitments - campaign promises - that might haunt their administrations.

But a calculated approach of that sort risks submerging the biggest story of the campaign so far: her sunny assertiveness, her willingness to act decisively when necessary.

The so-called Rose Garden approach would be hazardous against stronger opposition. Surely candidate Mitchell would like to turn his opponent's strategy into a liability. But his ability to do that has been compromised by the money matter.

The questions arise at a time when he trails in the opinion polls, making the damage more serious. Voters who may be wavering, who are undecided and looking for a reason to choose one way or another - are not reassured when questions arise. Especially questions about money.

The questions become more vexing because they are said to involve primarily the candidate's father, Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell Sr., an affable man who speaks often about the importance of the young generation taking leadership roles in government.

Candidate Mitchell says he had a disagreement with his father over the use of certain funds, particularly $14,151 for a motel room used by his mother while she was recuperating from knee surgery.

Dr. Mitchell thought the expenditures were proper, but his son thought they were not. The candidate gets credit for dealing forthrightly with a difficult situation involving his father, but the questions are probably not put to rest.

Two prominent Baltimore lawyers said Dr. Mitchell had done nothing wrong because campaign fundraising calls were made from the hotel room. The Mitchell campaign says its report of expenditures will erase any further question.

The Mitchells have been called the black Kennedys, a reverent bow to the family's history of service in the struggle for civil rights. From Lillie May Jackson, the civil rights pioneer in Baltimore, to her daughter Juanita and her son-in-law Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Mitchells have been the first family of civil rights in Maryland.

That lineage was surely one of the strong points of Mr. Mitchell's candidacy. No one knows how much political viability still resides in the name, but for Keiffer Mitchell to win in an increasingly difficult race, it needed to be considerable. What has happened doesn't help, to say the least.

The Kennedy parallel at least lives on. The family could always count on the swift arrival of Kennedy family retainers in times of crisis - times when one or more of the clan needed bailing out.

For the Mitchells, two prominent Baltimore lawyers - William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr. and Larry S. Gibson - sat down with Dr. Mitchell last week to assert that he had done no wrong. Nothing he did was illegal, they insisted.

Legal it may have been, but that is not the only test a campaign for political office must pass.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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