Mfume’s Return to Capitol Hill: ‘It Was Like I Had Never Left’

Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) addresses an enthusiastic crowd after declaring victory in the special Democratic congressional primary in February. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Rep. Kweisi Mfume has started in Congress twice. The second time he donned a protective blue mask as he walked onto the U.S. House floor to take the oath of office.

Despite rejoining Congress in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in many respects, his return felt “kind of normal,” Mfume told Maryland Matters in an interview last week.

When he stood on the floor to take the oath and walked through the adjacent Speaker’s Lobby on May 5, “it was like I had never left,” said the Maryland Democrat, who spent more than two decades away from Capitol Hill before he was elected to serve the remainder of the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings’ term.

“I really cannot explain the level of comfort that I felt,” Mfume said, adding he “came to the conclusion that this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do for the rest of my working years here on Earth.”

The pandemic isn’t the only part of Mfume’s return that’s unusual. Immediately after winning the April special election to serve through January, he launched into his re-election campaign to win the June 2 primary. Again, he’ll need to fend off challengers — including Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings — to keep the 7th Congressional District seat in the next Congress.

Mfume doesn’t mind the constant campaigning. “It gets you up on your game, it gets you back into game shape and it’s helped me more than it’s hurt me,” he said.

For now, he’s splitting time between Baltimore and Capitol Hill as he campaigns during the pandemic and works to advance legislation to blunt the pandemic’s impact.

In his first series of votes this month, Mfume supported a behemoth $3 trillion COVID-19 response bill that, among other things, would funnel money toward state and local governments. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the package — packed with Democratic priorities — “dead on arrival,” but Mfume thinks he’s wrong.

“It’s not dead at all. It’s very much alive, it’s very much needed,” he told Maryland Matters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appointed Mfume to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, the House’s top watchdog committee of which Cummings was chairman until his death. The committee has been central to House Democrats’ efforts to oversee the Trump administration and will continue to be among key panels investigating the federal response to the pandemic.

“After I got elected, I immediately requested, through the speaker, that committee,” Mfume said. He also asked to return to the Small Business Committee, where he served during his previous stint in Congress. “That’s near and dear to my heart,” he said.

As of Friday, he still hadn’t learned the specifics of his placement on the committees, he said. House members who return after time away are typically granted more seniority than newcomers to the chamber. “I’m not going to be on the top row,” Mfume joked, referring to the seats reserved for the most senior committee members.

The political scene has changed significantly since Mfume left the House in 1996. President Trump is in the White House rather than Bill Clinton. Pelosi leads the House, not Newt Gingrich.

“It was a lot different,” Mfume said. “I think that the environment is a little more toxic and that the words that are going back and forth across the aisle tend to be a little more cutting.”

But Mfume has learned to make adjustments. “What has worked for me is to be adaptive and to figure out what pool you’ve been thrown in and to figure out how to swim right away,” he said. “This is a different pool.”

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