Blacks Jockey For Political Power

There has never been an African American representing Maryland in the U.S. Senate, but with Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a 30-year veteran, stepping down in 2007, the door is now opening. And Kweisi Mfume, former NAACP president and Maryland congressman, hopes to take advantage.

“The people of Maryland need and deserve a principled candidate that can’t be bought and can’t be bossed,” says Mfume.

Mfume is one of several African Americans, both Democrat and Republican, gearing up for the 2006 elections. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, 46, a Republican, is seriously considering launching his own campaign for Sarbanes’ seat. Football legend Lynn Swann, 53, also a Republican, has hinted he might be making a bid for Pennsylvania’s governorship, and Democrat Deval Patrick, a former U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton administration, is vying for the same in Massachusetts.

The way Patrick, 48, sees it, government has failed the average citizen. “They’ve given up on public [servants],” he says, but he is hoping to change that.

Raised poor on Chicago’s South Side, Patrick graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law School and has worked as general counsel for Coca-Cola. He wants to make Massachusetts more business-friendly while improving public education and healthcare. “I’m an outsider. I don’t owe anyone anything,” says Patrick, who is facing politically experienced challengers in the primary.

Mfume may also run into early trouble, having already faced allegations that he gave preferential treatment to a woman with whom he had a relationship while he was NAACP president. “When there are unsubstantiated and unproven allegations, there is not much you can do but set the record straight,” he says.

The number of blacks running for office is the result of years of political activity in both parties, Mfume says. “We have done all we were supposed to do, and now it is our turn to offer both parties our vision.”