Mfume: At History's Door
Here's today's column:
The good news, as Kweisi Mfume sees it, is that if the new Washington Post poll results hold firm and he wins the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat this fall, he and Republican Michael Steele would face off in a historic Maryland election between two black men.
And that, Mfume says, would be an immensely empowering and proud moment: "It will say to this nation and the world that where slavery legally existed less than 150 years ago, we have come to a point where both parties nominate very serious black men for a very high position. It would turn this into a national race. We would be saying to the whole world, 'Look at how far we've come.' And it would be saying to ourselves, 'This is a precursor of our politics of the future.' "
The bad news is that just before Mfume sat down and talked with me about what his nomination would mean, he had delivered a stump speech to the Young Men's Democratic Club of Prince George's County and had gone to great lengths to allay any fears that the audience of 16 -- all but one of whom were white -- might have about his race, his surname and his youthful stint in a Baltimore street gang.
Other candidates don't feel the need to assure voters that they were taught as children to play by the rules and work hard. Other candidates don't happen to mention that they spent lots of time as kids playing ball "mostly with white kids." Other candidates don't feel obliged to explain their last name.
"When you strip away race and all the other things that divide us," Mfume concluded that night in Bowie, "everybody is the same. I know that black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white or green bigotry."
It's an awkward but effective ritual in which Mfume powerfully blends self-criticism with pride and passion. Every time I've seen predominantly white crowds take the measure of Mfume, a former congressman who more recently served as president of the NAACP, the emotions in the room are palpable.
Mfume persuades audiences that he is not in this simply to represent his race. His message is universal, and people of all hues nod and murmur affirmations as the candidate emphasizes issues his opponents barely mention: poverty ("It has no color, no last name"), lost pensions ("People worked hard for security that is torn away from them"), the corrupting effect of campaign contributions from big companies ("We don't take special interest money. The pharmaceuticals can't buy me; the oil companies can't buy me.")
But when Mfume finishes his talk, the questions quickly get down to practicalities, and first among them is the issue his main opponent, Ben Cardin, a congressman from Baltimore, harps on: Can Mfume win when Cardin has raised seven times as much money? Can Mfume get his message across when Cardin has already reserved $700,000 worth of TV time in Washington and Baltimore, while Mfume doesn't yet know if he'll be able to afford TV ads at all?
Mfume can do little more than acknowledge the difficulty he's had in raising money and insist that if he can get the word out about his differences with Cardin -- Mfume opposes the Patriot Act's intrusions on civil liberties, Cardin voted for it; Mfume says he was more adamant earlier about seeking the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq -- he can prevail.
Mfume's candidacy, however, is as much about stylistic differences as it is about policy distinctions between him and Cardin. His campaign likes to portray Cardin as a Bob Dole-like figure, a Washington insider who seeks a promotion for all his years of good service. Mfume is the plainspoken one, the one with fire in his belly.
But despite his efforts to make white audiences comfortable with him, Mfume has not been shy about mentioning race as one justification for his candidacy: Maryland Democrats have never nominated a black candidate for governor or senator, and with blacks making up 40 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries, Mfume warns that choosing Cardin could lead to a repeat of the 2002 gubernatorial election. Miffed that Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend had not selected a black running mate, many blacks stayed home that year, helping Bob Ehrlich win.
Race, of course, is the trickiest of weapons in a political campaign. When Mfume uses his prodigious rhetorical skills to neutralize the issue, he is masterful. When he wields race as a threat, he risks losing the advantage he has so carefully gained.
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