The 'Kweisi Problem'

Kweisi Mfume chats with former College Park mayor Dervey Lomax and his wife, Thelma, during a campaign event.
Kweisi Mfume chats with former College Park mayor Dervey Lomax and his wife, Thelma, during a campaign event. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Lee Hockstader
Sunday, June 11, 2006

As Democrats elsewhere rub their hands in anticipation of congressional gains in the midterm elections, Democrats in Maryland are gloomily contemplating a scenario in which they may lose a U.S. Senate seat they've held for 30 years.

And that scenario has a name: Kweisi Mfume.

Smart, personable and politically shrewd, Mfume is not exactly the image of a nightmare candidate. He has the bearing, bona fides and oratorical panache of a senator, and he possesses that priceless commodity for any New Age politician -- a poignant personal narrative. Having run with violent street gangs and fathered five children by four women by age 22, Mfume pulled himself together, earning a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and winning a seat first on the Baltimore City Council and then in Congress before becoming president of the nation's most august civil rights group, the NAACP.

But in his current incarnation, running in the Democratic primary for Maryland's open Senate seat, Mfume has declared war on his own party. The Democrats' sin, in his view, is to have turned their backs on his candidacy -- and on the aspirations of black Democrats.

"The party has to practice what it preaches," he says. "We preach inclusion, but when the test comes, [Democrats should] at least fake it."

His indignation at the party leadership's almost blanket support for his primary rival, Rep. Ben Cardin, may play well with his natural base: African Americans, who make up almost 40 percent of Democratic primary voters in Maryland. But party chieftains are increasingly anxious that if he wins the primary he will lose the general election to Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a laid-back black Republican personally wooed by President Bush and embraced by the state GOP. In their view, Steele -- unthreatening, sociable, a former altar boy -- would play better with moderate white swing voters who might be unnerved by Mfume's youthful history, which includes pistols, switchblades and 13 arrests while he was still a teenager.

That leaves some Democrats feeling damned if they do and damned if they don't -- that is, risking the erosion of a core constituency if Mfume doesn't win the primary, and, if he does, risking the loss of a Senate seat in one of the nation's more dependably Democratic states.

I'm not so sure Mfume would lose a race against Steele. He's an engaging campaigner and would use Steele as a punching-bag proxy for an unpopular Republican president. But the very fact that many senior Democrats see Mfume as a loser may further embitter black Democrats who think the party has taken them for granted for too long.

In some ways the "Kweisi problem," as some Democrats call it, is a rerun of another painful recent episode for Maryland Democrats. Four years ago Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat running for governor, chose an elderly white former Republican as her running mate. In so doing she passed over Ike Leggett, a well-liked black politician from Montgomery County. When she lost the race, many Democrats said dissing Leggett was the original sin that doomed her chances (inept campaigning helped).

Mfume's strained relations with the party started like a bad first date. He was the first Democrat in the Senate race, resigning from the NAACP and jumping in just three days after the five-term incumbent, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, announced his retirement last year.

Then: silence. Democratic party elders, notably Rep. Steny Hoyer, the state party's capo di tutti capi , scoured the field for a viable alternative to Mfume. For a month and a half, while Mfume was the only big-name politician in the race, nearly every major Democrat withheld endorsement.

Then Cardin jumped in -- a white congressman and a sober, respected heavyweight in Maryland politics for 40 years -- and dozens of endorsements arrived like bouquets at his doorstep. So did campaign contributions.

"I don't think the party leaders get it," Mfume says, the wound still fresh. "That's why they were comfortable ignoring me for 46 days."

Cardin is leading, but a handful of minor white candidates may whittle enough support away from him to give Mfume a shot. Mfume's fundraising, however, has been feeble, and his campaign organization is anemic. One local Democratic officeholder said she personally offered to help both Mfume and Cardin by hosting events and introducing them around. Cardin followed up immediately; she never heard from Mfume.

The tension in the party is right beneath the surface. Mfume won't even say whether, if he loses the Sept. 12 primary, he will actively support Cardin in the general election. And while polls show both men with a lead against Steele (Mfume's narrower than Cardin's), their support breaks sharply along racial lines: Most of Mfume's backers are black, most of Cardin's white.

If the "Kweisi problem" is left to fester, race may become an Achilles' heel for Democrats in a state where the party has dominated for years. And even in a rough year for Republicans, Michael Steele may end up as a proud new symbol of GOP inclusiveness.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address ishockstaderl@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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