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Feeling Kweisi

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/4/2005

Something’s not adding up in Kweisi Mfume’s U.S. Senate campaign.

When the former congressman resigned as NAACP president last November, citing the cliché that he wanted to spend more time with his family, and waited about 18 minutes before declaring his intentions to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes just three months later, he obviously knew about the allegations of impropriety first published last week in The Washington Post. The story, which hasn’t peaked, is either a hit job engineered by his enemies—as Mfume contends—or a demonstration of unseemly arrogance on the Baltimore-based pol’s part.

The publicly confident Mfume must be exasperated at this turn of events, figuring that a vigorous defense by his supporters would override the read-between-the-lines preference for the nonthreatening Baltimore-area U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (or Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County) expressed by The Sun and Post. It’s safe to say that both dailies prefer a Democrat to keep Sarbanes’ seat, and the prospect of an Mfume vs. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele campaign—the most high-wire clash of liberal and conservative ideologies possible given the potential candidates—is unsettling. Cardin or Van Hollen stand a better chance against the pro-life, pro-Bush Steele than the more outspokenly liberal Mfume, and it would give editors at The Sun fits if they were faced in 2007 with a re-elected Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Sen. Steele.

Sun reporter David Nitkin, on April 29, filed a gloomy report—for Mfume, at least—on the political establishment’s reaction to the NAACP memo. Mfume had to be ticked off at Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimorean and longtime ally of his, who told Nitkin, “I think it is damaging. Any time you are unfair or show favoritism, that is a general knock against a person’s ability to do a good job as an elected official.”

Rep. Albert Wynn of Prince George’s County, who deferred to Mfume in the quest to replace Sarbanes—and may decide to run if his former colleague drops out—wasn’t much more encouraging. He said, “The allegations are serious, but we can’t rush to judgment. We have to let the evidence play itself out.” And veteran political consultant Art Murphy, while insisting he’d never bet against Mfume and that the charges “have nothing to do with the truth,” still feared that his friend would be tarnished by the headlines. Murphy also said that even absent the Post’s revelations Mfume would have a tough go winning in a state that elected its first Republican governor since Spiro Agnew just three years ago.

Murphy didn’t mention Steele’s name, but the lieutenant governor is the real fear of Maryland’s Democratic party. Should Steele pass on the race—highly doubtful given the pressure from Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee—any Democrat will win, including Mfume. Democratic insiders I’ve spoken to in the last week hesitantly consider Cardin or Van Hollen the favorite against Steele, given the party’s daunting voter advantage and nearly ironclad hold on the black vote in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

But this smacks of overconfidence and reliance on past history, especially since the political environment today is far more charged than when Sarbanes was re-elected in 2000. Cardin, for example, is a very popular elected official within his own sprawling district, very much like Sarbanes in his demeanor and work ethic, but doesn’t whip up a crowd. Imagine a debate between him and Steele: Both are evidently unencumbered by personal troubles, so that’s a wash, but Steele isn’t going to concede any bloc of voters easily. His culturally conservative opinions are likely to resonate among more conservative religious black citizens than the Democrats would like to admit, and should Steele engage Cardin on abortion, gay marriage, and frivolous litigation, it’ll be difficult for the latter to make effective jabs. The battle over Social Security reform would, today, favor Cardin, but how that issue is viewed next year is unknown.

Van Hollen, although relatively unknown outside Montgomery County, is far more problematic for Steele. His politics aren’t much different than Cardin’s, but he’s relatively young (under 50), ambitious, aggressive, and more likely to mix it up with Steele on the hustings. It doesn’t matter that the two-term congressman currently has a low profile in the Baltimore area; if he shows vitality in early campaign appearances, the money and advertising will follow and it’ll be a bruising primary fight.

Incredulously, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who fell out with Mfume in the last year because the latter wasn’t militant enough against President George W. Bush, claimed in an April 30 Post article that Mfume’s new rash of publicity would work in his favor: “He was good at outreach, he’s tremendously bright, he’s good with people,” Bond said. But while there’s no argument Mfume is intelligent and charismatic, if the allegations of “women” problems persist, it’ll be far different sort of press than his well-documented transformation from street kid to respected public servant. That, at least to many voters, was an uplifting tale. But bumping up salaries for sexual favors, especially as leader of the historically significant NAACP, is another story.

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