Mfume, CBC Slow to Come Together

Posted May 4, 2005 at 6:11pm

As he plots his 2006 campaign for Senate, former Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) would seem to have an inside track on getting early and enthusiastic support from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he once led.

But seven weeks into his campaign, Mfume has not reached out to CBC leaders or sought a meeting, Black Caucus sources say.

What’s more, Maryland’s two black House Members, Reps. Elijah Cummings (D) and Albert Wynn (D), are taking their time making an endorsement in the Senate race.

And in contrast to Rep. Benjamin Cardin, his main opponent so far for the Democratic Senate nomination, Mfume has not yet announced an endorsement from a single elected official, black or white.

“People are beginning to badger him” about endorsements, said Maryland state Del. Rudolph Cane (D), president of the Legislative Black Caucus in Annapolis and an Mfume supporter. “But they did the same thing when he began to run for Congress” 20 years earlier.

The question is whether Mfume’s slowness in reaching out to members of the CBC — and the reticence of elected officials to rally to his cause — will hamper his campaign in the long run, especially given recent reports that his tenure as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was marred by allegations of favoritism.

“I wouldn’t put any significance to it at all,” said Arthur Murphy, a Democratic consultant in Baltimore who managed some of Mfume’s House campaigns. Of endorsements, he said, “It’ll happen.”

Mary Jo Neville, a Democratic National committeewoman from Maryland who is supporting Mfume, said the former Congressman and Baltimore City councilman has been focusing more on reaching out to grassroots supporters than to public officials. She said he is drawing enthusiastic crowds in every corner of the state.

“I think a lot of times endorsements by elected officials are overstated,” Neville said. “I think right now Kweisi’s doing the smart thing — he’s worrying about voters.”

Mfume was in meetings Wednesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.

Still, some observers of Maryland politics see the lack of endorsements as significant — especially after The Washington Post revealed last week that Mfume was accused of promoting female NAACP employees that he or members of his family were close to.

While Mfume vehemently denied the charges, the silence from fellow politicians is noteworthy.

“I think they’re wondering, ‘Will Kweisi implode?’” said one high-ranking nonwhite Maryland Democrat.

That sentiment has been magnified by a pervasive sense that Mfume — a decade after retiring from politics to run the NAACP — has been slow to put a political organization in place.

By contrast, Cardin has surrounded himself with fellow pols since formally entering the Senate race last week, most notably House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who has come to epitomize the support Cardin appears to be receiving from much of the state’s white Democratic establishment.

“It’s amazing how many Democrats have come out for me,” Cardin said Wednesday. “It is important to be able to show how your candidacy can draw support from all areas of the state.”

Notably, Cardin’s supporters include black politicians. During his announcement speech in Baltimore, he was introduced to the crowd by Kenneth Harris, a black city councilman. Also in attendance, at Cardin’s request, was the highest-ranking black official in the state House, Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D).

“Most of the [black] folk are friendly with Ben, so [deciding who to endorse] is presenting a hard problem,” said Murphy, a former president of the Baltimore NAACP who is staying neutral in the Senate primary.

Sources within the Black Caucus suggested that some CBC members believe the former NAACP leader needs to reach out and reassure his former colleagues about the ethical questions that are swirling around him.

“There is excitement about the prospect of having another African American in the Senate,” said one CBC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But these latest allegations in the case of Mfume certainly give people pause.”

The 43-member CBC could pack a major fundraising and political punch for Mfume. In the previous cycle, the organization made its No. 1 priority electing Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to the Senate. It also helped elect Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said the group rarely makes blanket endorsements. He said any political activity would be left to the CBC political action committee, which is headed by Wynn.

Watt said he has yet to personally talk to Mfume but “would expect he would be organizing support within Maryland before he went to an organization outside of Maryland.”

Watt predicted that several CBC members will weigh in on the Maryland Senate race, and he may as well. Watt said he isn’t in a hurry to involve himself in political races because he doesn’t want his personal support to be misinterpreted as a group endorsement.

One CBC source suggested that the group is taking its time in part because it is looking to Cummings and Wynn for guidance.

Wynn noted Wednesday that there are other black Democrats still publicly considering the race, including Cummings and Prince George’s County States Attorney Glenn Ivey, and that “it’s very early in the process.”

“Additional candidates may come into the field,” Wynn said. “I’ve made the judgment that it would be premature to make an endorsement.”

Cummings, who insisted Wednesday that he is still pondering a bid, advised Mfume to reach out to the CBC for support. But he acknowledged, “In all fairness, it is early.”

One national Democratic strategist who follows Maryland closely said Wynn’s and Cummings’ reluctance to get behind Mfume right away is easy to explain, given their own ambitions.

“It’s the glass ceiling thing,” the strategist said. “If Kweisi wins, that’s it. Nobody else gets to be the black Senator from Maryland.”

Several Maryland operatives and politicians said Mfume is more likely to win widespread support from black leaders in the Baltimore region, where he is well-known, than in the Washington, D.C., region — particularly if Ivey or Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) enter the Senate contest.

Cane, the president of the Legislative Black Caucus, said that while his group has not taken a formal position on the Senate primary and isn’t likely to do so for several months, Mfume did win commitments of support from several black lawmakers when he came to Annapolis on the final day of the legislative session last month.

“They were elated when he announced that he was running,” Cane said.

In the meantime, Hoyer’s support for his longtime friend Cardin is expected to yield an endorsement soon from Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.). Cardin said that having the power of Hoyer behind his candidacy is “very important” because the Minority Whip is prominent in Congress and Maryland, knows Cardin well, and represents an area of the state where Cardin could benefit from heightened name recognition.

But appearing to hold back Mfume’s aspirations carries some peril for state Democratic leaders, who are still dealing with the backlash over not having a black candidate on the statewide Democratic ticket in 2002, when Republicans elected a black lieutenant governor.