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Denying Mfume? Democrats Should Say, ‘Not This Time’

While working the room at a recent event honoring legendary civil rights icon Dorothy Height and Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, I couldn’t help but listen to the other rumblings in the room. Yes, we had all gathered to support the National Council of Negro Women and to celebrate the Congressional Gold Medalist’s 93rd birthday. But, there were other reasons to be joyful on this auspicious occasion. Kweisi Mfume was, literally, back in the House. [IMGCAP(1)]

The former Member of Congress from Baltimore and the recently retired president and CEO of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization was holding court between executing his official duties as master of ceremonies. Kweisi’s regal presence not only caused a stir as he worked the room, presumably to greet old acquaintances, but because another buzz was making the rounds. The rumor that other Democrats, notably Rep. Benjamin Cardin, were also ready to jump in the open-seat race for retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ (D) seat.

The very suggestion of this caused some of Kweisi’s admirers to walk away, shouting “no way.” But other listeners, like myself, looked at each other and said: “Not this time.” Democrats had better pay attention to what’s happening in Maryland before allowing other candidates to create a potentially major rift in the party’s base.

From D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) to former Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Bill Lynch, everyone greeted Mfume as if the 2006 election was all but over.

“Hello Senator,” one guest greeted him. “Senator, we cannot wait to see you up there with Barack Obama,” said Susan Taylor, editorial editor at Essence Magazine. But just as the vibe was getting good, the news of rumors of another Democrats challenging Mfume caused many in attendance to get downright upset.

Many African Americans and some in the progressive communities, including the National Organization for Women and Feminist Majority, have simply had it with the notion that every time a qualified woman or minority seeks higher office, the old ghost of “wait your turn” makes an appearance to clamp down our enthusiasm. Enough is enough. It’s time Democrats put up or shut up about encouraging more women and people of color to seek higher office. The 2006 election may well be our day of reckoning.

In addition to Mfume, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) is contemplating running for the U.S. Senate to replace retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) in Tennessee. Will Democrats embrace him deep in the “red” South? In Ohio, two African Americans may face off in the gubernatorial contest. Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is likely to challenge (if they both win their respective primaries) Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman (D). What will Democrats do in that state?

And perhaps Deval Patrick, a former top official in the Clinton administration who is running around Massachusetts building up political support for a potential gubernatorial bid, will get the nod from Bay State Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Edward Kennedy. I hope so.

From my vantage point, all of those mentioned above as being interested in seeking statewide office are just as qualified as any other candidate. They have experience in public or appointed office, knowledge about the jobs they are seeking, high name recognition and the ability to raise millions of dollars. Given that, it’s time Democrats put aside their reluctance to embrace these candidates and throw their full support behind them. And they need to do so early enough to demonstrate our commitment to inclusion — and before it’s too late.

This is not about affirmative action or setting up a quota system (although I have no problem with using affirmative action as a tool to enhance diversity in enrollment, hiring and other areas). This is about African Americans and other loyal constituencies receiving a return on 40 years of investing our valuable political capital in the Democratic Party and giving our monolithic support to the party’s candidates. If not now, when? If not Kweisi, Harold, Deval, Michael and so many others, than who else is out there with comparable or greater experience?

I’m sorry, but Mfume is more than another Senate candidate. He will become a symbol of how Democrats intend to treat qualified black candidates in the future. When it came to backing a Senatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, Democratic leaders in the Senate had no qualms about picking a male candidate, Bob Casey Jr., over Barbara Hafer. As a Democratic strategist, I understand that Reps. Cardin, Dutch Ruppersberger, Chris Van Hollen and others may simply be testing the waters or using this as an opportunity to build up their names for future consideration. I just hope they respect the fact that many black and progressive voters intend to claim this seat for one of their own.

There’s no doubt that African Americans share the desire of Democratic Sens. Harry Reid (Nev.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to win back the Senate. We understand the importance the 2006 election will play in determining the composition of the courts, renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other important legislative initiatives. There’s no reason to remind us of the dangers of a Republican-controlled Congress. We get it!

Like many Americans, we feel the loss of jobs in our urban centers. We see the broken dreams of those living at or near the poverty line. That is why we want someone like Mfume in the Senate: someone who came from nothing and made something out of his life to become a champion for the “least, last and left behind.”

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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