Will Voters Embrace Mfume After All These Years?

Former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) talks to reporters Monday after announcing that he wants his old job back. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the U.S. House, Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men had the No. 1 single, and Twitter was still a decade away when Kweisi Mfume left Congress in February 1996. 

But Mfume, now 71, wants to go back to Capitol Hill.

“Trust me, if I were not trusted, prepared and ready to go to work on day one, I wouldn’t be here,” he said at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore Monday as he announced his campaign for a special election next year to replace the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) – his successor.

The Maryland Democrat is hoping to reclaim the 7th District seat, which he held from 1987 until 1996, when he resigned to take the helm of the NAACP. The congressional race could become crowded – several other high-profile Democrats are expected to run, including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. 

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has scheduled a Feb. 4 primary ahead of the April 28 special election to fill the seat through the remainder of Cummings’ term. The primary for a representative to serve in the next Congress is also scheduled for April 28.

Mfume was a Baltimore city councilman when he won the congressional seat for the first time after emerging from another crowded primary. After Democratic Rep. Parren J. Mitchell announced his retirement, Mfume defeated Mitchell’s nephew – former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III — as well as Wendell H. Phillips, a Baltimore civil rights activist and member of the House of Delegates. 

After almost a decade helming the NAACP, Mfume ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. Senate seat in 2006, losing the Democratic primary to then-Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin by 3 points. Cardin won the Senate seat and serves to this day.

Mfume said he had no way to plan for this congressional run, but felt called to serve after Cummings’ death last month. “As long as we have a breath in our bodies, we have another chance to break the bonds of injustice,” he said. 

Mfume said he didn’t discuss the special election with Rockeymoore Cummings before his announcement. “We haven’t talked specifically like that,” he said during a news conference at the museum that followed his formal announcement. “I’m not trying to cram her or jam her in any way.”

Mfume was among the speakers who paid tribute to Cummings at his funeral in Baltimore last month.

‘Throwback … to a different era’ 

Mfume and his supporters see his prior experience in the House as an advantage heading into the race. 

“Having done that job for 10 years, every day, 52 weeks out of the year, it’s given me an idea of what has to get done and how to do it,” he said. 

Mfume served on what was then called the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee and the Small Business Committee. He served on the Select Committee on Hunger before it was eliminated in 1993. He was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1993 until 1995.

Mfume sometimes sparred with President Clinton; in 1994, he was among six lawmakers arrested while protesting the administration’s policy toward Haitian refugees. 

At a 1996 event swearing Mfume in as the CEO of the NAACP, Clinton joked, “When Kweisi called me to tell me he was going to take this job, in the words of an old country song, I didn’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling. I had become almost emotionally dependent upon him being in the Congress – supporting me when I needed it, reprimanding me when I needed it, whether I knew it or not.”

Clinton added, “He is a uniquely gifted man, with a personal history that shimmers with the promise of America and the possibility of personal renewal and the virtue of never giving up on yourself or your family or your common possibility.”

Some of Mfume’s former GOP colleagues welcomed his entry into the race.

“I think it would be nice to have Kweisi there for a little longer,” said former Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who served in the state’s U.S. House delegation with Mfume.

“Kweisi was a good colleague, a good friend,” and a mentor when Gilchrest was new to Congress, he said. “Like Elijah, he’s a tower of strength and integrity.”

Former Maryland governor and congressman Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said Mfume’s decision to run is “very, very good news for Baltimore and Maryland and for politics generally.”

He called Mfume a “throwback in a sense, to a different era,” before politics became as poisonous as they are now. He sees Mfume as someone who’s charismatic, has a strong business sense and is willing to work across the aisle.

“I think he’s got a lot of residual credibility,” Ehrlich said.

If Mfume wins the special election, it’s unclear how much of his seniority he would retain from his first stint in Congress. Those rankings are important in the chamber, where veteran lawmakers tend to have more clout and better committee assignments than newcomers.

Mfume said Monday that whether he gets seniority back in committees would be up to the Democratic caucus.

“I’ll get some of my seniority back, and that’s good. But more important, I know half of the people that are there,” he said.

Congressional ‘recidivist’ club

Mfume wouldn’t be the first member of Congress to return after so many years away. Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, for example, was in the U.S. House from 1975 until 1981 before returning 32 years later to serve from 2013 until 2019. A Democrat, he was defeated for reelection during the Republican wave of 1980.

Another two-time congressman, South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, left his House seat in 1998 to run unsuccessfully for Senate before returning in 2005. He joked in an interview Monday that he was a member of the “recidivist” club of members who left Congress to return later.

“Getting an opportunity to come back a second time was really quite a special treat,” Inglis said. The Republican conference restored his seniority when he returned to Capitol Hill, he said, and his colleagues offered him a warm welcome back.

Inglis said he learned a lot during his six years out of Congress, while he was watching other lawmakers “do things and hear them say things and I’d just cringe.” He added, “I’d glance in the rearview mirror and see that it was me.” 

He pointed to members of Congress inflating their self-importance. During his second stint, “I was intent that that wasn’t happening,” Inglis said. 

His return to Congress, which he called “2.0,” was “much more meaningful,” Inglis said. “A lot of people try but very few are given a second chance.”

‘A bone-headed thing to do’

Mfume’s longevity in politics was on vivid display during his announcement Monday. Among those sharing the stage with him were well-known Baltimore political warriors like former state Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D) and attorney and seasoned Democratic strategist Larry Gibson, along with veterans of Mfume’s 2006 Senate campaign. Former mayor Sheila Dixon (D) sat in the audience.

“The nation needs his wisdom,” Gibson told the crowd. “The district would greatly benefit from his experience and from his congressional seniority.”

Mfume peppered his comments with references to former political battles and ex-colleagues, like the late Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a pioneer of the Congressional Black Caucus who died last week.

The consensus among political professionals is that Mfume will start the special election with higher name-recognition than most of his rivals. So far, state House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) has announced his intention to run, and state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) has created an exploratory committee.

Many other potential candidates beyond Rockeymoore Cummings are pondering the race. The filing deadline is Nov. 20.

But having a long record can be a mixed blessing. Mfume was asked during the news conference about his years-ago admission that he had had a consensual romantic relationship with an underling while heading the NAACP. Media accounts at the time reported that the civil rights organization paid a settlement to a woman who claimed she was not receiving promotions after rebuffing sexual advances from Mfume.

Mfume on Monday noted that he was “a single man” when he was romantically involved with his colleague, but added, “I’ll say what I said 15 years ago when it happened…It was clearly a bone-headed thing to do.”

He also noted that the National Organization for Women endorsed his 2006 Senate bid — and aides on Monday passed out the 13-year-old news release heralding that endorsement.

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