Mfume Headed Back to Hill, But No One Knows When

Rep.-elect Kweisi Mfume

Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) is returning to Congress after a 24-year hiatus.

Mfume appeared well on the way to a resounding victory Tuesday in the special election to replace the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) in Maryland’s 7th congressional district. As of 8:08 p.m., when the first and only results of the night were released, Mfume had 78,887 votes, for 72.5%, while conservative commentator Kimberly Klacik (R) had 28,853 votes, for 26.5%.

Ten minutes later, the Associated Press declared Mfume the winner.

Klacik did not formally concede, but did post on Twitter moments after the results were released, “That one time when hard work didn’t pay off. Perhaps one day District 7 will want a change. Proud of my team & the work we put in. We will continue to wait for the final results. Thanks everyone!”

A final vote tally won’t be available for several days, because the overwhelming majority of ballots were cast by mail — a first for Maryland and a possible harbinger of things to come in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My first order of business is the pandemic,” Mfume said during a subdued victory celebration at his campaign headquarters in downtown Baltimore Tuesday night. “…It’s the biggest challenge that I’ve ever known in my lifetime.”

The special election puts Mfume, 71, in Congress for just eight months. He’s finishing the term of the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), who died in October. Ironically, Cummings replaced Mfume in a special election in 1996, after Mfume resigned from Congress to become president of the NAACP.

“It is really surreal,” Mfume said, about “history almost repeating itself.”

But it isn’t clear when Mfume will be sworn in. The House, which has largely been absent from Capitol Hill since the spike in COVID-19 cases around the country, was tentatively scheduled to reconvene on May 4, until House leaders announced Tuesday that they would not return that day.

Throughout the campaign, Mfume touted his experience in government — he served on the Baltimore City Council from 1979 to 1987 and in Congress from 1987 to 1996 — and suggested he might have his seniority restored if he returned to Capitol Hill. But on Tuesday afternoon, a spokesman said Mfume had not broached the subject with House Democratic leaders — and had not put in a request for committee assignments.

“The former Congressman believes it would be inappropriate to have those discussions with Democratic leaders until the will of the voters has been determined and the election results have been certified,” said the spokesman, Anthony McCarthy.

A spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Annaliese Davis, said Tuesday she was unaware of any conversations about Mfume’s seniority or committee assignments.

During his last term in the House, Mfume served on the Financial Services and Small Business committees. If he received the same assignments he could, theoretically, be the second most senior member of the Small Business panel, but he would have at least 10 Democratic members ahead of him on the banking committee seniority list.

Despite the lengthy gap in his service, Mfume’s time away from Congress isn’t the longest in modern history. Former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) served in the House from 1975 to 1981 and again from 2013 to 2019.

In statements Tuesday night, Maryland’s senators welcomed Mfume back to Capitol Hill.

“Team Maryland is proud to welcome back Congressman Kweisi Mfume,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) — who entered Congress at the same time as Mfume, in 1987, and also defeated him in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2006. “At this critical time for our country, and every neighborhood in every corner of Maryland, we need a full and active delegation fighting side-by-side to protect the health, rights and dignity of every person in our state.”

Cardin predicted that Mfume would serve the 7th District “in a way that honors Elijah’s deep legacy and builds on his incredible record.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) called Mfume “a tireless advocate” for the city of Baltimore and surrounding areas.

Mfume’s deep political roots in the city were affirmed by the 93% of the vote he was racking up there in the special election.

Even as he celebrated his victory Tuesday, Mfume is running in another election in just five weeks — the Democratic primary for a full term on June 2. He’ll face a rematch with several candidates whom he dispatched handily in the Feb. 5 special Democratic primary, including former Maryland Democratic chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings — Elijah Cummings’ widow — state Sen. Jill P. Carter and Del. Hassan S. “Jay” Jalisi.

All was relatively quiet Tuesday at the one open polling place in Baltimore City for the special congressional election. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

Tuesday’s special election represented a trial run for the state’s vote-by-mail program, which it established in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the ballots were cast by mail, though one polling place was open Tuesday in each of the three jurisdictions in the 7th District.

Elections officials said Tuesday they had received about 110,000 mail-in ballots after sending out almost 500,000 — though many more are expected to arrive in the next few days.

The state plans to encourage mail-in voting during the statewide June 2 primary, though a few polling places will be open for same-day voting.

While voting rights advocates said the administration of the special election was far from perfect, no major glitches were reported — especially compared to the statewide primary in Ohio that also took place Tuesday.

“Maryland is a more heartening story,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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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.