Telling of Life Story Enlivens Mfume's Campaign

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

The story is told again and again by the candidate whose name once was Frizzell Gray.

As he tells it, there was a haze. A halo. A soft, welcoming light that enveloped him like melted honey.

"In the middle of the night, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of a crap game" -- as he now describes the scene -- Gray was turned away from gangs and drugs and crime by an extraordinary vision. On a corner in West Baltimore in 1972, he saw a golden cloud of light, and in it his late mother's face.

"I didn't know," he told her. "I couldn't see."

The story, as told, is fantastic, unreal. But oh, is it ever told: the story of his life's conversion, the moment when Frizzell Gray was no more.

"He died," Kweisi Mfume, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland, said of Gray, the delinquent he was before that epiphany -- and a name change in the 1970s. "He died that night on the street corner in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the crap game."

Never mind that this is not quite true, that the new Mfume contains a lot of the old Frizzell -- the young operator who made money at a nightclub taking Polaroid portraits or the even younger kid who used to play deejay, using a spoon as his microphone. Never mind that the skeletons in his closet did not stop accumulating in 1972.

The tale of Mfume the man and, now, Mfume the candidate is to a significant extent the story of The Story, living it and learning to tell it.

Biography on the Stump

There's one easy way to tell you're not at a rally for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Mfume's well-regarded but un-funky chief rival in their party's primary Sept. 12. That would be when the political speeches are preceded by the "Electric Slide."

So it was at a Saturday afternoon campaign barbecue in Brandywine this month. Mfume did the "Slide" with the crowd and then got on stage to speak. He started with policy: There are 46 million people in the United States without health insurance. One in six children live in poverty. In some schools, he said, "drugs are more available than textbooks."

Mfume hits these points often on the stump. He has called for improving teacher retention, introducing a single-payer universal health-care system and starting to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. On policy issues, he and Cardin are often not far apart.

Then, Mfume moved to the subject on which he has starkly different views from his opponent's: biography.

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