Comeback Kid

Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) addresses an enthusiastic crowd Tuesday night after declaring victory in a special Democratic congressional primary. He's almost certainly returning to Congress. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Hungry for a political comeback for well over a decade, Kweisi Mfume (D) took advantage of being one of the few household names left in Baltimore and swept to victory Tuesday in a crowded special congressional primary.

Barring the unthinkable in the April 28 special election, Mfume will return to Congress after a 24-year absence, and will fill the seat left vacant by the death in October of former U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) — Mfume’s successor.

“Experience matters! Experience matters! Experience matters!” a jubilant Mfume told the crowd gathered Tuesday night at The Forum, a catering hall in Northwest Baltimore.

With 311 of 313 precincts reporting in the 7th District Democratic primary, Mfume took 43% of the vote compared to 17% for former Maryland Democratic chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the congressman’s widow, and 16% for state Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City).

Mfume won handily in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County portions of the district, and finished just 10 votes behind Rockeymoore Cummings in the Howard County portion. He’ll face conservative political commentator Kim Klacik (R) in the April 28 special election. Klacik won the eight-way GOP primary with 41% of the vote, well ahead of the second-place finisher, attorney Liz Matory, who took 24%.

Mfume’s margin of victory was in some ways stunning, but in other ways should not have been surprising. He is one of the most famous living political figures in Maryland and was far and away the best known candidate in the Democratic primary.

Rockeymoore Cummings, despite the deep affection throughout the district for her late husband, and Carter, even with a hardy band of progressive, grass-roots supporters, could not compare.

Mfume, 71, was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1979, where he served until winning a congressional seat in 1986. He spent a decade in Congress before resigning to become president of the NAACP in 1996, paving the way for Elijah Cummings, than a state legislator in Annapolis, to replace him in a special election.

Mfume had been urged to run for mayor several times in the past two decades, but his one prior political comeback attempt came in 2006, when he fell 3 points short in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

“We were prepared to accept anything, but believe me, we are very happy to accept this,” Mfume said of the resounding victory.

Assuming Mfume prevails in the special general election, Maryland’s 10-member congressional delegation will continue to be all-male, at least through the end of 2020.

But despite Mfume’s wide margin, some of the Democratic also-rans suggested Tuesday night that they’re still planning to take him on in the regular primary for a full term, which also falls on April 28. On the one hand, the gap between the winner and the losers was so great that it might be hard for these contenders to raise serious money; on the other hand, the electorate will look a lot different in April, when the ballot will also include presidential candidates and, in Baltimore, candidates for citywide office.

Most of the Democrats and Republicans who ran in Tuesday’s special primaries are also slated to be on the regular primary ballot; they have until 5 p.m. Thursday to withdraw.

“While the results on Feb. 4 aren’t what we want, I want to say: Look forward to April 28, you all,” Rockeymoore Cummings said to a cheering crowd at a TGI Friday’s restaurant near Modawmin Mall.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings embraces a supporter at her primary night party at a TGI Friday’s restaurant. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

Rockeymoore Cummings invoked her late husband’s name throughout the campaign, and continued to do so at her gathering Tuesday night.

“We fought together for a long time, and then, of course, he expected me to keep fighting,” she said. “And get this: I am.”

Earlier in the day, just before casting her vote, Rockeymoore Cummings told reporters she felt “at peace.”

“I feel like Elijah’s standing right here next to me,” she said.

Volunteer and supporter Danielle Jennings said that though this isn’t the outcome they wanted, they are going to “keep steamrolling this forward.”

“Maya still has an amazing platform and she still is Elijah’s legacy. She is part of that,” she said.

But at his victory celebration, Mfume spoke warmly of Cummings as well, recalling their 42-year friendship. He also introduced two of the late congressman’s sisters to the crowd, who had endorsed his candidacy.

“This is for him. This is for him,” Mfume said.

(Cummings’ two adult daughters had endorsed another candidate, Harry Spikes, a former aide to their father, who finished with 3.5% of the vote.)

Mfume also offered an olive branch to his vanquished Democratic rivals.

“I ask if you now will join on board with this campaign so we can go forward,” he said.

A quiet day in the city

Most, if not all, of the polling places across the district in Baltimore City had signs trumpeting Mfume, Rockeymoore Cummings, and Carter. Most of the sites had poll workers handing out campaign literature for those three top candidates to voters entering the polling places.

More sporadic were signs and a poll worker for the less well-financed and less well-known candidates, including Del. Talmadge Branch, Spikes and Saafir A. Rabb II.

One polling place that has traditionally been a hotbed of Election Day activity for candidates and campaign workers alike is the Baltimore City Public Safety Training Facility at Northern Parkway and Park Heights Avenue – also an early voting site in the regular elections.

Some of the signs at a polling place in Baltimore City Tuesday evening. Photo by William F. Zorzi

Tuesday evening, however, while there were three television reporters and cameras at the site, there were no poll workers to be found handing out any kind of campaign literature.

One seemingly dispirited Rabb supporter and two friends were seated on a bench outside the polling place, but were not actively seeking out potential voters. When a passerby stopped to talk with them, the supporter reached into a bag and pulled out a piece of Rabb campaign literature.

Some Baltimore City Council candidates in the April 28 primary election used the special congressional election Tuesday to try and elevate their name recognition.

In North Baltimore’s 4th Councilmanic District, candidate Logan S. Endow camped out outside the polling place at Medfield Heights Elementary/Chinquapin Middle School, off Tunbridge Road for the day with a plethora of his Council signs.

Angela D. “Angie” Winder visited the school site and planted a single sign there and elsewhere at polling places in the district, while council candidate Zachery S. “Zac” Dingle stood outside the schools and handed out palm cards late in the afternoon.

Sheila Dixon for Mayor signs were outside a number of the polling places, and workers — frequently those handing out Mfume literature to voters entering the polls — would hand out Dixon for Mayor literature to voters leaving the polls.

Much of the old guard of Baltimore’s black political establishment threw its support behind Mfume.

Law school professor Larry Gibson and attorney Billy Murphy were advisers to the former congressman and Gibson in particular was a frequent presence on the campaign trail.

The Afro-American newspaper, which was published and distributed Friday, endorsed Mfume, but the news was dwarfed by coverage of the death of Kobe Bryant and eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. The entire A-section, including the editorial page, was devoted to his passing.

In its endorsement, The Afro praised Carter as “The People’s Champion,” singled out Del. Terri L. Hill of Howard County for her “cogent command of the issues” and even made a point of favorably mentioning Rabb entry into the political fray.

But there was absolutely no mention in the Mfume endorsement of Rockeymoore Cummings.

The silence was deafening.

But there was anything but silence at Mfume’s primary night party.

“Love us when you can and if you can’t, pray for me some more,” the candidate told the wildly cheering crowd. “I need you.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.
Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.
William F. Zorzi
Bill Zorzi was a Baltimore Sun reporter and editor for nearly 20 years, focusing on government and politics. An Annapolis bureau veteran, he wrote a weekly column, “The Political Game” for the paper.Zorzi and another former Sun reporter, David Simon, are longtime collaborators on acclaimed television projects, including the HBO series, “The Wire,” and the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” which dealt with an explosive housing desegregation case in Yonkers, NY.