Kweisi Mfume

Kweisi Mfume says he's a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. (Sun photo by Algerina Perna / March 14, 2005)

Kweisi Mfume, the former national NAACP president and Baltimore congressman who rose from impoverished beginnings to become one of the nation's most prominent black leaders, said yesterday that he is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Mfume, a Democrat, is the first entrant in what is expected to be a crowded field to fill the seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes. Coming on the first working day after Sarbanes' announcement, Mfume's decision appeared designed to build early momentum and give potential rivals pause for thought.

Surrounded by five of his six sons during a news conference at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Mfume, 56, pledged to bring his personal story of overcoming adversity and a belief that government can be a force for good to every corner of the state.

"I can't be bought. I won't be intimidated. I don't know how to quit," he said. "I am not looking for fame, and I have no need to be validated. I do this because I believe this is the time, and this is that rare opportunity to be able to set a new course."

Already, Mfume's first-in strategy appeared to have impact. Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a well-known African-American leader from Prince George's County, said he would not seek the seat.

"After a long weekend of soul-searching, my instincts and intuition tell me that now is not the right time for me to run for the U.S. Senate," the Democratic congressman said in a statement.

State Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat from Baltimore, called Mfume "the front-runner."

"He has instant name recognition," said Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate from Prince George's County who attended yesterday's announcement at Camden Yards. "Very few candidates bring congressional experience, local experience and a national following."

Still, having last run for office in 1994, Mfume might not have a political organization or a strong network of loyalists. No elected officials surrounded him yesterday at the ballpark's Designated Hitter's Club; his blue-and-red campaign signs were carried in by his sons and by a few volunteers.

Born Frizzell Gray, Mfume (pronounced Oom-FOO-may, according to a biography released yesterday) overcame rough early years. He was arrested several times as a young man, was imprisoned, drank and used drugs, and had five children out of wedlock, one of his sons told The Sun in 2000.

But inspired by the black militant movement, he went on to get college degrees from Morgan State University and the Johns Hopkins University, and he was a community activist and radio commentator before he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council in 1979 by three votes.

After seven years on the council, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1987 to 1996.

He stepped down from his NAACP position in November to spend more time with his family.

If elected to the Senate, Mfume said, he would focus on education, health care and Social Security for those who most need government's assistance.

He said he is in public life out of "the real hope, and the real belief, that there are still among us men and women who believe in the real power of government and its inherent ability to empower the governed in such a way that their lot is made better and their futures are made whole."

"I am a product of poverty, like so many others who are black, Latino, Asian and white," he said. "I, like many of them, learned why hard work, decency and respect are important."

At the NAACP, Mfume is credited with restoring fiscal solvency and building membership.

But he left abruptly last year under somewhat mysterious circumstances. A Time magazine article in January cited sources saying nepotism within the civil rights organization - a former girlfriend of a son was hired as a fund-raiser - was a factor in his departure.

Mfume denied the allegation yesterday, saying, "it didn't make a lot of sense to me."