Former Mfume Allies ‘Giddy’ at Prospect of His Return

Kweisi Mfume hugs a supporter after winning the special Democratic congressional primary on Feb. 5. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

When lawmakers are elected to the U.S. House, it takes a while for them to learn how to cast a vote, where to find the restrooms and how to introduce a bill.

That won’t be the case for Kweisi Mfume, who’s expected to win the April special election to fill the remainder of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term. Mfume won the crowded Democratic primary to represent the heavily Democratic Baltimore district.

Mfume held the seat before, from 1987 until 1996, when he left Congress to take the helm of the NAACP.

“He’s going to hit the ground running,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who served in Congress with Mfume in the 1990s.

Count Rush among Mfume’s former colleagues who are looking forward to his return.

“He and I worked very well together,” Rush said. “I’m really excited. As a matter of fact, I’m giddy.”

Democratic Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who’s served in the House since 1983, reached out to Mfume after he won the primary. “I called him and said ‘Kweisi, welcome back,’” she said.

They worked together on financial services issues decades ago. “I said ‘Kweisi, I’m still working on community development credit unions, come back,’” Kaptur said. “We always used to work together on different issues that related to fair credit and fair housing,” she added. He’s “of good humor always, just someone who’s a pleasure to work with.”

Things have changed a lot since 1996, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who was in Mfume’s freshman class in 1987.

“We thought 1996 and Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America was bad,” DeFazio said. “The Trump administration makes Newt look like a good government guy. It’s very difficult and challenging times, but our job in the House is to push back as best we can and Kweisi will be good at that.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) was also in that 1987 freshman class (as were current House lawmakers including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who, like Mfume, grew up in Baltimore, and John Lewis of Georgia).

“I was the only one that could actually say Kweisi versus spell it,” Upton joked this week.

Upton and Mfume worked together on legislation that gave a tax credit for small businesses that needed to make changes to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“It was hailed by the small business community as the most significant piece of legislation enacted by the Congress that session,” Upton said.

“Kweisi came up to me on the House floor, and he grabbed my lapels. He goes, ‘Upton, you have tarnished my reputation. I’ve always had a zero with the Chamber of Commerce. I don’t know that I can win my reelection because now I’m like a 20 because of what I did with you.’ But he said that obviously with a big smile.”

A lot has changed since 1996, Upton said, “But I’ll be one that’ll be greeting him with a handshake. … I’ll be looking forward to grabbing his lapels.”

During his last stint in Congress, 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. And he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1993 until 1995.

It’s unclear where Mfume will wind up if he wins the April special election, as expected.

Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) last week said she has “no idea” when asked whether Mfume might serve on her committee.

Because he’d be returning in the middle of the session, where he lands will likely depend on where there are openings, said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

“There’s a little less flexibility. I have not spoken to anybody in leadership about that.”

But, Raskin added, there are Marylanders with leadership clout.

“We have Steny Hoyer who is the majority leader, I’m one of his majority whips. We’ve got people in places to help and we will do whatever we can to procure the committee assignments that Kweisi is interested in getting.”

In the Maryland House delegation, Hoyer is the only member who previously served with Mfume in Congress.

It’s unclear how much of his seniority Mfume would retain from his first stint in Congress, although he’s expected to have more than a freshman serving for the first time. Those rankings are important in the chamber, where veteran lawmakers tend to have more sway and better committee assignments than newcomers.

Mfume’s experience will give him a significant advantage on Capitol Hill, Raskin said.

“He will know his way around and he will have immediate influence and status with his colleagues, and that’s everything up here to be able to influence your colleagues to get things done,” Raskin said.

At this stage in his career, Mfume will be “in a hurry to get things done,” Raskin said. “He’ll quickly discover along with the rest of us that right now we can get things through the House, but they end up sitting in a big wobbly pile on Mitch McConnell’s desk. And he, of course, is going to be focused on trying to get elected again.”

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