Mfume Jumps In for Sarbanes's Seat
Wynn Decides Against Giving Up House of Representatives to Run for Senate

By John Wagner and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page B05

Kweisi Mfume, a former national NAACP president and five-term Maryland congressman, yesterday became the first Democrat to make official his bid to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), laying down a marker in what is expected to be a wide-open race next year.

"My goal is to give a new voice to the issues that affect everyday workingmen and workingwomen and the families that they are a part of," Mfume said during a late-morning news conference in a lounge overlooking Camden Yards in Baltimore, where he was joined by five of his six sons.

Within hours of Mfume's appearance, Rep. Albert R. Wynn, another prominent black Democrat who on Friday had expressed interest in the seat, said he would forgo a Senate bid.

"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," said Wynn, who represents Prince George's and part of Montgomery County in the House of Representatives. Allies said that Wynn, a seven-term incumbent, was not influenced by Mfume's announcement.

The developments came three days after Sarbanes, Maryland's longest-serving senator, made a surprise announcement that he would retire rather than seek a sixth term in 2006 -- and set off intense jockeying among would-be successors.

Four other members of Maryland's congressional delegation have said they are looking at the race, including C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of suburban Baltimore, who plans to announce an exploratory committee this morning, and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, who said yesterday that he would set up an exploratory committee "shortly."

Baltimore Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings also are considering bids.

Analysts credited Mfume with moving quickly to focus attention on his nine-year NAACP tenure and nearly a decade in Congress before other candidates clutter the race. Mfume's bid is less of a gamble than those of his potential rivals because he will not be forced to give up a current office to seek a higher one.

"I hope that this early start says to people that I'm very serious about this," Mfume said. "I don't want to play games."

Though it has been a decade since he campaigned for elective office, Mfume said in an interview that he has remained grounded in Maryland politics. He noted that the NAACP's national headquarters is in Baltimore and that his nationwide contacts should help with fundraising.

Mfume described himself as unabashedly liberal on social issues but said he had grown increasingly conservative on fiscal matters.

"Am I too liberal for the state of Maryland?" Mfume said. "We'll find out."

He promised that in his campaign he would "say quite frankly the things that need to be said." Among the issues Mfume said he would highlight are public schools, which he called "overcrowded and ill-equipped," and health care disparities among different demographic groups.

Mfume, who retired as NAACP president Dec. 31, acknowledged that he would have to work to introduce himself to voters outside his former western Baltimore congressional district.

Those applauding his candidacy yesterday included black ministers in Maryland and national civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson. "He will be able to pull together labor, people of color and whites hoping for the American dream," Jackson said.

Analysts said Mfume's prospects for prevailing in the primary are greatest if no other black candidate enters the race and several white contenders join the field. African American voters typically make up about 30 percent of the state's Democratic primary electorate.

"The more white Democrats enter the race, the better it is for Mfume," said Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Wynn's decision not to run stands to help other black candidates in the emerging field, as they can target his majority-black district for support. Wynn's absence also leaves Van Hollen of Montgomery County as the only potential Democratic candidate in Congress from the vote-rich Washington suburbs.

Other potential candidates are eagerly awaiting a decision from Cummings. The liberal west Baltimore lawmaker, who succeeded Mfume in Congress in 1996, is the immediate past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. The other Democratic members of Congress still looking at the Senate race are white.

Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who is black, is also looking at the race.

Talk of possible Republican candidates has been far more muted since Sarbanes's announcement Friday, with most speculation focusing on Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has not signaled his intentions.

Carol Hirschburg, a prominent Republican consultant, said yesterday that Steele would be wise to consider the Senate race. "It's one of those moments where if you take a chance, it might pay off," she said.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company