Cummings’ Protege Slow to Gain Traction

Harry Spikes is a candidate for the congressional seat once held by his late boss, former U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). Photo courtesy of Harry Spikes

Harry Spikes has met with thousands of constituents in Maryland’s 7th congressional district since he began working for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) 15 years ago.

He was even praised by Cummings a few years ago for single-handedly changing federal policy to allow late-stage cancer patients to receive expedited Social Security disability funding when in the past it had taken years. And in 2014, Cummings gave his stamp of approval by endorsing Spikes as his protege sought a state delegate seat in Baltimore’s 45th District.

“Harry has a kindness for people,” Cummings said at a campaign event then. “[C]learly he has a passion for people. In my office, that’s the number one qualification — to fight for wanting to improve their lives. Harry has done that and showed it over and over and over again.”

Eventually, Spikes became Cummings’ district manager, overseeing every office and constituent in the parts of Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City that make up the district.

In the fall, Cummings’ daughters  endorsed Spikes for an even higher seat — their father’s — after the popular congressman died unexpectedly from a chronic illness in October. They did so even though their step-mother, former Maryland Democratic chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, is also running in the special election.

“[A]s one of the youngest candidates in the running, [Harry] also has the unique ability to build a multigenerational and diverse coalition of support,” Jennifer Cummings said in a statement on behalf of herself and her sister Adia. “As he shared in speeches and at events, Dad wanted as many freshmen members assigned to his committee as possible because he believed in preparing and passing the baton to the next generation. Harry Spikes represents that next generation of leadership.”

Yet, Spikes appears to be having a hard time gaining momentum in the Feb. 4 special election — where 24 Democrats are facing off to determine who will fill Cummings’ seat for the remainder of 2020. A simultaneous campaign is taking place for a full congressional term, with the Democratic primary set for April 28.

Recent campaign finance reports show Spikes has raised just a little over $18,000, while three candidates, including Rockeymoore Cummings, have collected at least $200,000. University of Baltimore Law School professor F. Michael Higginbotham loaned his campaign $506,000, taking in $615,684 altogether through Jan. 15.

A week ago, Spikes did not make the cut for two back-to-back Baltimore-based forum invites where an unscientific poll produced by the website DMVDaily determined who would attend.

Last Monday, the DMVDaily news show hosted the Martin Luther King Jr. 7th Congressional District candidate forum at Soul Harvest Baptist Church in West Baltimore. A day later, WOLB 1010AM radio news hosted an on-air forum.

WOLB host Larry Young, a former state senator, sat on Monday’s panel, while he moderated Tuesday’s forum during his morning talk show.

Originally, only five top vote-getting candidates based on the poll were to be selected to participate in the forums, but the hosts decided to up the number of attendees to seven. Spikes placed 8th.

Only a last minute, unexpected decision on Monday to allow runners-up to replace lawmakers departing for work in Annapolis, provided an entrance for Spikes to sit in on the remainder of Monday’s forum. But on Tuesday Spikes was completely shut out, missing out on an opportunity to be heard by approximately 60,000 to 80,000 WOLB listeners.

“I would have loved to participate, but I can’t control who gets invited and who doesn’t,” Spikes said.

Instead, one of the host’s questions created an opportunity for the candidates to attack Spikes’ area of expertise — constituent services — while he wasn’t on hand to defend himself or Cummings from the criticism.

“Constituent services is the basis for which I am running,” candidate Saafir Rabb said. “Constituent services have been weak. There has been abject neglect. . . It’s not just unfortunate circumstances that happened, this is a consequence of a lack of vision, a lack of work. Congressman Cummings couldn’t do it alone.”

“Your staff needs to know it’s a priority,” said former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who represented the 7th District for 10 years. “I am proven, tested and ready to go back to work on day one.”

Mfume also praised labor unions and touted his support of the living wage, mirroring language in an AFL-CIO news release announcing its endorsement of his candidacy on Sunday evening.

Sparks replied that he was told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said on her show that Cummings had the best staff in Congress because of the office’s constituent services.

“There’s no one in the race who knows more about constituent services than me,” he said. “I’m letting the people decide, and I’m counting on all of the work I’ve done to speak for me.”

Spikes said he doesn’t know who is going to win the special election, but based on reaction he’s getting from the community he’s served on behalf of Cummings, he’s confident he has a chance.

Spikes’ campaign manager Vanessa Bright said Spikes will host two town halls this week in Catonsville and Columbia, while Cummings’ daughter Jennifer hits the campaign trail.

“We intend to campaign hard,” Bright said. “Fewer resources only mean we have to work harder and be more creative. The town halls will provide an opportunity for constituents to meet Mr. Spikes and hear his vision but more importantly, he can hear from his constituents. Once people get to hear his ‘Why,’ they will realize that he is the candidate to pick up the torch from Congressman Cummings and carry it own for the next generation.”

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]