In Surprise, N.A.A.C.P. Leader Is Quitting
Published: December 1, 2004  (must register to view original article)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 30 - Kweisi Mfume, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a surprise announcement on Tuesday that he was stepping down because he wanted a "break" from the job he has held for nine years.

"I just need a break," Mr. Mfume said. "I need a vacation."

Mr. Mfume, 56, a onetime gang member who eventually served in Congress, said he did not know what he might do but he did not rule out running for a United States Senate seat from Maryland in two years, when Paul S. Sarbanes, 71, the state's senior senator, is up for re-election.

Mr. Mfume's voice cracked, and tears welled in his eyes as he said he wanted to spend more time with his 14-year-old son, Christopher, the youngest of his six children.

"He was 5 when I started this, and so in many respects, all he has known is me on airplanes and press conferences, doing this and doing that," Mr. Mfume said at a news conference at the Baltimore headquarters of the N.A.A.C.P., the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

"I don't want to miss another basketball game," he said. "I don't want to be absent from another P.T.A. meeting. And since he's in his first year of high school, I want to be there to help sew on the varsity letters on his sweater."

His announcement came just a month after the Internal Revenue Service began an investigation into the organization's tax-exempt status.

After President Bush refused to attend the N.A.A.C.P. convention in July, becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover not to address the 95-year-old organization, Julian Bond, the N.A.A.C.P. chairman, delivered a scathing critique of the Bush administration. Mr. Bush later said his relationship with the group was "basically nonexistent."

Mr. Bond has said that his critique prompted the I.R.S. to undertake the investigation of the N.A.A.C.P. and numerous other organizations on the ground that their partisan activity had violated their tax-exempt status.

Mr. Mfume said that his departure had nothing to do with the inquiry or because of any differences he had with N.A.A.C.P. officials. "This is not about some internal squabble, so let me put that to rest," Mr. Mfume said.

His resignation is effective Jan. 1. The organization's legal counsel, Dennis Hayes, is to serve as interim president.

Mr. Mfume's departure will coincide with a change of top leaders at the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The terms of Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman, and Cruz Reynoso, the vice chairman, are expiring, and Mr. Bush will appoint their successors.

That will give Mr. Bush the chance to reshape the commission, now made up of four Republican-appointed members and four Democratic-appointed members. Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, declined to discuss whom Mr. Bush might appoint but said his decision "will reflect his strong commitment to upholding civil rights for all Americans."

Together, the departures present an opportunity for Mr. Bush and the N.A.A.C.P. to redefine the leadership and missions of two venerable organizations that deal with civil rights and whose relations with the White House have been severely frayed.

In a sign of the sharp debates that have characterized the commission, Ms. Berry and Mr. Reynoso sent to the White House on Tuesday a 166-page report highly critical of Mr. Bush's record on civil rights.

A cover letter accompanying the report, which was sent despite the objections of the Republican-appointed members, told Mr. Bush that his civil rights policies "further divide an already deeply torn nation."

On Nov. 5, Mr. Mfume sent a letter to Mr. Bush seeking a meeting to begin to bridge "the chasm that for too long has divided our organization and your administration."

Mr. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in the Nov. 2 election, up from the 8 percent he won in 2000.

Mr. Mfume said Tuesday that just before he made his announcement, Karl Rove, the president's senior political strategist, had called to wish him well. Mr. Duffy said that Mr. Rove initially called Mr. Mfume after the White House received his post-election letter, and Mr. Mfume returned Mr. Rove's call Tuesday.

Another well-wisher was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who credited Mr. Mfume with leaving the organization stronger than when he arrived, when it had a $3.2 million debt. "It was suffering a crisis of morale and credibility and financially," Mr. Jackson said in a telephone interview. He said that Mr. Mfume had restored it to fiscal health and integrity.

Mr. Mfume, who appeared in good spirits, said, "Nine years ago, many of you will remember that we were mired in debt and we were steeped in doubt." But, he added, the organization has finished each of the past eight years with a budget surplus, more than $15 million in cash reserves and several million more in an endowment. One challenge that remains is increasing the membership, which has remained steady at about 500,000 for several years.

Mr. Bond, who accompanied Mr. Mfume at the news conference, said that the board had tried in vain to persuade Mr. Mfume to stay on.

Asked whether he would consider trying to unseat Maryland's governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, or to run for Mr. Sarbanes's Senate seat, Mr. Mfume replied, "I really don't know what the future holds." He added: "I learned as I get older never to say 'never.' And there's a part of me that says, 'Well maybe you might,' but I'm not really sure about that."

Gary Gately contributed reporting from Baltimore for this article.