Why Did Mfume Loose?
“The state (Maryland) is not ready for a Black candidate,” according to Wayne, a supporter of Ben Cardin. “I want to go with a winner,” said the Black business activist. Wayne is atypical of what you would expect of a Black Democrat in the state and Baltimore. He bucked the party apparatus in the 2002 election and help lead the coalition of “Democrats for Erhlich.” His independence is couch in the unspoken rule of “What have you done for me lately?” and an entrepreneurial class who is less out in front. Instead he and those of his ilk prefer to “wheel and deal” behind the scenes.
Without being prodded Wayne cuts to the chase. “Why did Mfume loose? I think that issue over women was critical,” according to him. It’s a mantra that I heard over and over in the final months leading up to the campaign and a fear that supporters of Mfume constantly expressed.
“Is there something more to the female allegations?” Do the Republicans have something on Mfume they plan on using in the general election?” With each inquiry the skepticism was evident.
“There was no way I was going to support Mfume” says Delegate Jill Carter of Baltimore, one of the Democrats rising stars. The issue of “honesty” was a factor for her and a number of Baltimore Democrats who literally inherited the legacy of Mfume in Baltimore politics. While Carter never said directly Mfume’s dalliances with female employees while at the NAACP was wrong. When I asked her about the issue her facial expression told the story.
I don’t want to suggest that this was the only issue to sink the Mfume campaign but it was this slow creep of doubts in the African-American community and the broader community that played a factor.
Here are some of my other observations:
No Longer a Rock Star – Mfume for a generation that came of age during the 70’s was larger than life. His street credibility was cache. He “stuck it to the man” while dressed in a suit and tie. People naturally rallied to him because they saw in him themselves. The myth and the man however were never able to energize this group. While supporters were prepared to votes for Mfume, they couldn’t convince their skeptical white friends to vote for someone who didn’t look like them. Lastly, where were their checks?
Losing Hip-Hop – This constituency should have been Mfume’s from the get go. Embracing this group is double edge sword. I still believe Hip-Hop has some growing pains. This however, is the electorate of the future. By tying in with the group you tap into technology and the cyberworld in which they pulse. The endorsement by Russell Simmons of Michael Steele should be a wake up call to any Black or White candidate in the Democratic Party. Caution to Republicans being Black isn’t enough.
Money – Mfume was polling at or near 40 percent without television ads. He had name recognition. His inability to raise capital in the state was due in part to three factors.
1. Multiple races where people were begging for political contributions.
2. Should have taken PAC (Political Action Committee)amd corporate money.
3. Should have had a heart to heart talk with the NAACP hierarchy and pleaded with them to let him speak at their national convention in Washington. This would have generated press and more importantly money from those outside of Maryland during what you call a meet and greet.
Campaign Strategy – Mfume’s team while competent needed an infusion of new blood. The head of Mfume’s election campaign and a veteran of Mfume campaigns, was mounting what I believe was an 80’s style campaign. Yes, speak to many groups, get the endorsements, and raise money but this campaign lacked imagination and energy. To some extent it was wonkish.
Television Ads and Other Promotional Tools –Dropping your television ad the last week before the primary was too late. Yes, I know he didn’t have money but, it was too late. I liked the message and the tagline, “It’s not where you start but how you finish that counts.” This should have been the campaign slogan. Drop that national Democratic line, “We can do better.” (I still don’t know what this means?) The campaign should have utilized the net more. There was a 3-4 minute testimonial from Mfume running on his website the month before the primary. It talked about why he was running. The campaign should have broken this item into four different thirty second commercials. I also believe in order to reach beyond your natural constituency there was a need for a commercial that didn’t show Mfume but talked about values and Maryland. With money being spent on electronic media (television and radio) direct mail was non-existent. Lastly, radio has somewhat lost it’s effectiveness with African-American electorate because of consolidation in the industry and it’s emphasis on entertaining rather than enlightenment. The medium can be used effectively if you want to define yourself and more importantly your opponent.
Style – This item is subjective and you may agree or disagree. He needed to loose the suit coat, shirt, and tie (Not all at once). I will tell you I am “clothes hound” but, over the years I have learned to temper my own fashion tastes. I where more polo shirts with jackets than I ever have in my lifetime. Yes, there are appropriate places to put on the uniform (suit and tie). People view those in the uniform these days with an air of superiority. In a campaign it is essential that you be of the people and not above the people.
Loosing the Base – Early on in the campaign I called the Mfume Campaign Headquarters to ask a question and didn’t get my call returned until two days later. (Reporters don’t often get their calls returned right away but when running a campaign it’s important at least to find out what the question is to formulate an answer.) I spoke with several people, who aren’t reporters, who also said they had a similar experience in trying to contact the campaign headquarters. I chalked this up to putting a staff in place. People who are trying to contact you are your base and it’s important to return phone calls and get answers.
The base constiuency for Mfume is Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but the place that was most excited about Mfume was Prince George’s County (What’s wrong with this picture?).
To attack or not attack – Political consultants will tell you when you’re down by ten percentage points going on the attack is not going to hurt you. The closest Mfume came to doing this was during the live televise debate on Maryland Public Television. During the debate I posed this question to both candidates. “A spotlight was shown on this congress and the influence of money on the political process. Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mfume during your time in congress you have both excepted money from special interest groups looking to influence legislation. What steps should be taken to make sure that legislation when it is drafted is in the best interest of both the citizenry and business interest?” Mr. Mfume answered that “I don’t go around and take special interest corporate dollars” (well that’s not exactly true) and he went on to questions Cardin’s acceptance of those dollars. This was his opening to separate himself from Cardin. He didn’t.
Lastly, during the debate Mfume suggested having him face Steele in the general election would remove race from off the table. I’m not certain if that would be case but, we’ll never find out in lieu of his lost to Cardin.