From Table Pounder To Inside Player

It's a blustery January afternoon, and U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume is tooling through the blighted streets of his district in west Baltimore. Sitting behind the wheel of his black Lincoln, Mfume's eyes dart back and forth along the desolate stretch of boarded-up row houses and garbage-filled lots. "I come back here every week," the 44-year-old lawmaker says. "It helps keep me grounded. You stay in Washington too long, and you lose touch with things that really matter."

At the corner of Robert and Pennsylvania, near the old Pottash Grocery where he worked as a boy, Mfume swings a right. Some passersby recognize his car and wave, but it's the voice of someone shouting "Kweisi" that grabs his attention. It's his neighborhood buddy, Curtis.

"You heard Cutty's dead, right?" Curtis asks, walking over to the car as Mfume gets out to greet him. "His body was found last week. They think it's drug-related." Mfume shakes his head. "No, I hadn't heard that," he says. "That's a damned shame."

'EFFECTIVE.' This is Mr. Mfume's neighborhood, where tales of hard luck and hopelessness are an abundant natural resource. As the representative glumly acknowledges: "There are not a lot of success stories here." A quarter-century ago, Mfume himself seemed destined for a life of struggle and anonymity on these streets. But these days, the man in the black Lincoln is a role model for a neighborhood overcome by poverty.

Kweisi Mfume (pronounced Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-may) has quietly emerged as one of the nation's most promising black politicians. Recently elected chairman of the growing Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), he is poised to become a key player in shaping the debate and legislation aimed at curing the ills of the nation's inner cities. Seven years ago he was a radical member of the Baltimore City Council. But by mastering the fine art of politics, the representative has taken a seat among the power elite in Washington.

The question is whether Mfume--and the CBC--can really deliver on their liberal agenda. The former Baltimore firebrand represents a new generation of black leadership in Congress--a group of young pragmatists more concerned about creating economic opportunity than protest (box). With a political style punctuated by behind-the-scenes consensus-building and compromise, they hope to use their newfound power to help rebuild the inner cities and poor rural areas. The trouble is, needs are many and funds are scarce. Progress is likely to come haltingly--even under a Democratic Administration.

ODD JOBS. Folks on the streets of west Baltimore are just glad to have a voice inside the Beltway. And those who knew Mfume growing up as Frizzell Gray--an angry gang member and unmarried father of five--still marvel that he was able to transform himself.

Mfume was the oldest of four children, and his mother, Mary Elizabeth, worked odd jobs while his stepfather drove a truck. The family was usually broke. When Mfume was 16, his mother died of cancer, leaving Frizzell to assume the financial burden for his sisters and himself. He dropped out of school in tenth grade and took jobs at both a local bakery and a meat market. On Sundays, he shined shoes. "All of my friends were going to the prom and having fun," he remembers. "All I did was work."

Before long, Mfume hooked in with a street gang and let his life spiral out of control. He spent evenings boozing and gambling on corners, and by the time he was 20, he had fathered five sons by three women, all out of wedlock. He would still be there, he says, but for an epiphany he had one night while hanging out in front of the local liquor store on Division Street. Not long before, Mfume's natural father had gotten out of prison after serving time for running numbers. He had pleaded with his son to clean up his life. "It was a hot July night, and people were standing around shooting craps and everything else, and something just came over me," Mfume notes. "I said, 'I can't live like this anymore.' And I walked away."

Mfume quickly began turning his life around. He took a high school-equivalency exam, then enrolled in community college. It was the late 1960s, and a rising tide of Afrocentrism had swept through the black community. Frizzell adopted the tribal African name he uses today, and he began studying his African-American heritage, as well as current events. Sporting a dashiki and African jewelry, he joined a local black radio station, WEBB, and later, a noncommercial station at Morgan State University, where he had transferred to study political science.

As a DJ, Mfume railed against the city's clubby Democratic Party, particularly then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Says friend George Buntin, executive director of Baltimore's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: "If there was a radical position to be taken, Kweisi was there to take it."

In 1978, Mfume decided to run for a seat on the Baltimore City Council. But like any aspiring black pol in Baltimore, he first sought the imprimatur of Raymond V. Haysbert, chairman of the Parks Sausage Co. and a local power broker. Haysbert was taken aback by Mfume's flamboyant attire. "I could see right away that he had a real problem," Haysbert says. "I told him to dress for where you're going and not for where you've been." In other words, "buy some dark suits and some white shirts."

Mfume, who had begun supporting his five sons (he remains in close contact with them), changed his image enough to win a council seat that year. But his combative style remained intact. Says Vera Hall, chairwoman of Maryland's Democratic Party: "He was very loud and outspoken. His heart seemed to be in the right place, but I wondered how he'd ever be able to deliver." Sometimes, Mfume spoke too freely. In 1986, he publicized unsubstantiated accusations of sexual abuse involving a city official only to backpedal later. He blamed the media for "distorting" his comments.

TWO WARRIORS. "I remember Mr. Mfume taking the floor and blasting everything he thought was wrong," recalls Schaefer, now Maryland's governor. Mfume, however, was beginning to learn a valuable lesson in politics. With Schaefer in his way, Mfume was forced to build coalitions with less-radical pols to further his agenda. The two made peace by 1986, when Mfume won his congressional seat and Schaefer was elected governor. Says Mfume: "We could go to our graves battling each other, or we could get things done."

Mfume carried that lesson in compromise to Capitol Hill, where the erstwhile table-pounder discovered the shortest path to power was to make friends in a hurry. To win recognition, he volunteered to sit as presiding officer during floor debates. It's a thankless job that requires a detailed knowledge of arcane House rules, but he performed well enough that he was asked to preside over key debates such as those over the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act.

Mfume also sought out a position on the House Committee on Banking, Finance & Urban Affairs. Although he knew little about banking, he impressed his colleagues by hitting the books to educate himself. "He's not burdened by knee-jerk ideology," says Representative Jim Leach (R-Iowa), the committee's senior Republican. "He stands out for his substantiveness--not for reeking of political macho."

Still, Mfume's impact has been limited by his relative lack of seniority. Most of his initiatives have come in the form of fine-tuning proposals from other lawmakers. Working closely with Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.), Mfume has targeted increased credit for inner-city businesses. He has worked to amend the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to bolster the law's enforcement mechanism. And he has helped make it easier for minority contractors to get work on properties owned by the Resolution Trust Corp.

'CLERICAL ERRORS.' He has also worked the back hallways to build the connections that belay a climb to power. "Even though his voting record is 180 degrees different from mine, we have worked together," says Representative Helen Delich Bentley (R-Md.). Bentley, for instance, interceded on Mfume's behalf with the Bush Administration when it came to issues of interest to Mfume's district. As a Democrat, he has promised to do the same for her under Clinton.

Some critics wonder if Mfume has become too much of a Washington insider. In some ways, he has certainly acted like one. Mfume was one of the legislators caught up in the House banking scandal last year. He wrote $2,500 worth of bad checks, blaming "clerical errors on my part." Embarrassingly, the issue came to light only after Mfume was appointed to the House Ethics Committee to replace a member who himself had bounced checks. While Mfume initially told House Speaker Thomas Foley that he had no overdrafts, he later said he simply hadn't been informed of the bad checks when he took the appointment.

Such abuses of privilege don't mesh well with Mfume's image as a man of the people. Examples abound of politicians who lost sight of their mission after tasting the good life. Mfume hasn't forgotten where he's from. "When I look over my shoulder, I see 20 of my friends who never got out," he sighs. The challenge is to keep focused on making west Baltimore--and other areas like it--a place people aren't looking to escape.

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