Guest Editorial: Mfume for Congress by Sr. Journalist Charles Robinson, III

(BALTIMORE – February 11. 2020) – The Baltimore region looked back to its past for the answer to the future. Kweisi Mfume, the former Congressman, bested 24 Democratic candidates in special election on February 4, 2020 to replace the late Congressman Elijah Cumming.

“This was a decisive victory,” said Larry Gibson, the University of Maryland Law Professor who urged Mfume to run. The numbers tell a story of why. The former congressman garnered 43% (30,138) of the total Democratic Party Voters (note this was a closed primary, no independents nor cross party voting). The district which was once Baltimore City centered now contains Baltimore County and Howard Counties. His margins were high in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. In Howard County he lost to Dr. Teri Hill (the winner in Howard County) by 333 votes (Mfume – 3288, Dr. Teri Hill – 3621). It was clear Mfume had a ground game that extended well beyond his original congressional district.

There were a lot of questions about Mfume returning to political life. It’s not as if people haven’t been urging him for years to rejoin the political class (overtures included a run for Baltimore Mayor, Governor of Maryland and an unsuccessful run for Maryland US Senator). The former Congressman enjoys a hero like status in Baltimore. He talks often of his early days as the kid on the corner hustling and fathering several children. The first Black Congressman from the 7th District Rep. Parren J. Mitchell saw a young man, Frizell Gray, on a corner and began a conversation which lead to job on his campaign. Gray would change his name to Kweisi Mfume and become a community organizer, a college student, a radio talk show host, Baltimore City Councilman, and Congressman.

“Experience matters…experience matters…experience matters,” he chanted as the crowd joined in the mantra at the Baltimore Forum. There were a lot of people from his past in this room including former Judge Billy Murphy, Howard Libbit, Dan Henson, and Black Political Godfather Larry Gibson.

The room was also filled with next generation of political heavyweights including Baltimore’s Political Power couple Nick and Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore County Council Member Julian Jones, Baltimore State Senator Corey McCray and Prince Georges County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.

The Mfume name is now cemented as a political brand with the likes of the Mitchell’s, Sarbanes, and Cardin in Maryland. “You know what you get.” His brand, like these names is personal. When Mfume walks into a room heads turn. He’s unafraid to “press the flesh, and look you in the eye.” Everyone doesn’t understand there are simply questions you are likely to encounter during a conversation in Baltimore. Where did you go to high school? What side of town did you live/grow up on? Who’s your momma/daddy? I have lived in and visited other cities where these same questions are asked, but in Baltimore its personal. Failure to answer is a brush off that the locals will not tolerate. They won’t say it to your face but, in their mind, they’ve surmised, “you’re not one of us.”  Note this isn’t just a “Black Thing.” I have had the same conversations with other minorities, gender, and sexual orientation groups. We like authentic, “don’t ever tell someone from Maryland you boil crabs – we steam crabs.”

 

The Eye Test

I watched a number of candidates roll out their campaigns for this race. Some chose historic locations, I watched a launch from a living room, online and everything in-between. With a short window to run, it was imperative candidates get in front of as many people possible. If you lived in the 7th District and attend a church, a synagogue, or a mosque you likely got a visit from the candidates. This is always a dicey proposition. Religious figures are not allowed to endorse candidates (you could lose your non-profit status).

With the window short on campaigning and name recognition at a premium there are tried true ways to do this. Lawn signs are an efficient way to get people to remember who you are in election. This is easy but can be subject to vandalism.

I saw this playout in a candidates forum at the Free the Captives Church when Janet Anderson, of The Northwest Voice asked, “A number of campaign signs along the Liberty Road corridor have been defaced, stolen or ripped apart. If you found a member of your staff had done this how would you handle it?” There were a number of candidates who were aware this was occurring and denounced anyone who would do this and distanced themselves from rogue supporters.

The next logical way to break through is via media. Everyone knows you must have a website and a social media presence. Much of the television ads didn’t come in until the weekend before the election. I know part of the problem was fundraising. Some candidates did better than others. I want to point to one candidate, Michael Higginbotham, a law professor, who gave his campaign $500,000. In the current climate this is not illegal but raised eyebrows. In his disclosure form, much of his spending was on polls, consultants, TV production and ad buys. On election night, a woman who supported Mfume began a conversation with me by asking about Higginbotham’s TV ads. I acknowledge I had seen them. “Did you notice he was running in the streets of Baltimore and there was no one else in the ad but him. How is that possible.”

 

The Elephant in the Room

For Maryland being a “progressive state,” it is inherently regressive when it comes to women and politics in both parties. The glass ceiling was broken years ago when Sen. Barbara Mikulski represented Maryland. Reps. Helen Bentley and Connie Morella were boasted about in national circles for their Republican affiliation. Likewise, Rep. Donna Edwards, became the first Democratically elected African-American woman representing Maryland. Now none of them are in office and for some it’s been a lifetime and no one appears to be on the horizon.

This race offered a unique opportunity for women. It included Elijah Cummings wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, State Senator Jill Carter, and Delegate Teri Hill and Dr. Leslie Grant. They made no bones about the need for “A Woman in the House.” A reference to the House of Representatives. There was even a forum for just women candidates.

The men had to dodge and clarify especially, Mfume. It began with his announcement at the Reginald Lewis Museum. He began fielding questions about his inappropriate relationship with subordinates during his time as the CEO of the NAACP. He acknowledged it happened at a time when he was young, and called it a “boneheaded decision.” He is 70 years old and married today. He said he would reach out to women. As if on cue, I was passed a press release during his initial press conference from National Organization of Women. It was an endorsement from a past campaign.

It didn’t stop the Baltimore Sun from publishing an article on Mfume’s time with the NAACP. The source for the article were papers from then Chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, Julian Bond. Bond said he had recommended terminating Mfume’s contract as CEO because of allegations from women. They never followed through because the CEO resigned. Reacting to this, Mfume said and suggested the two men had strong personalities (which I witnessed -covering the NAACP for BET).

Several weeks after this episode DeWayne Wickham wrote an Op-Ed in the Afro American Newspaper giving context. He also covered the NAACP for USA Today. Bond donated his personal papers to the University of Virginia in 2005 where he taught. The papers referenced in the article were always there. Wickham surmised “someone dropped a dime.” Wickham also pointed to the rocky relationship between NAACP’s CEO’s and Board Chairs (there is a long list). Lastly, The Afro endorsed Mfume.

The Endorsement Game

There are personal endorsements, and political endorsements. There is an unwritten rule in Black America not to speak “unwell of the dead.” When Elijah Cummings died a well of emotions came over a community. His homegoing service had past US Presidents, members of Congress, and people who knew him before his life as a politician. The speculation began at the funeral as to who would replace him in congress. His widow, acknowledge she wanted to continue the work of her husband. Several Maryland legislators were likely to throw their names in the race. I waited for the deadline and some 24 people filed for the special election to fill out the term.

Cummings daughters, who spoke at the funeral, made clear after the funeral they were not going to endorse their step-mother but instead gave their endorsement to their father’s Chief of Staff, Harry Spikes. There was a cold wind blowing that some of us may have missed.

This was followed by a report from the interim head of the Maryland Democratic Party, Maryland Senator Corey McCray. McCray said an audit of the books when Maya Rockeymore Cummings was the head of the Maryland Democratic Party, showed she payed more consultants and overspent from what she took in from fundraising.

Ms. Cummings refuted the claim suggesting the organization was “a mess and she brought in more money than her predecessor.”

With a week to go a number of campaigns rolled out personal endorsements. At the Cummings endorsement event I watched a number of prominent women personally endorse Cummings widow including former Baltimore Health Commissioner, Dr. Lena Wen, and former Baltimore City Council Member Helen Holton. I paid close attention to Holton’s remarks. She like other women in the room made the argument for having a woman in the Maryland congressional delegation. Holton questioned Mfume’s vote on the Crime Bill under President Bill Clinton’s administration, then there was a but! “I want to address all the women who are in the legislature running for this office. If you give up your seat…there is likelihood your position will be taken by a man…You need to leverage your position.” It came out of left field so afterwards I asked her to clarify what she was saying. She suggested they should step out the way and “Let Maya be the Congresswoman.”

When I got to Annapolis and I explained this to Del. Talmadge Branch and Del. Teri Hill they were taken aback. I asked if they had heard this argument. “That doesn’t make any sense,” Del. Branch said with disbelief. “I’m not going anywhere,” said Del. Hill.

Unbeknownst to me, Mfume was having his own endorsement event on the other side of Baltimore. It was billed as “Women for Mfume.” Lead by former Delta Sigma Theta President, Dr. Thelma Daley, the former Congressman was surrounded by a number of women in his life. Then he asked two of Elijah Cummings sisters to come forward as they endorsed his candidacy.

I know to the surprise of everyone including Maryland Senator Jill Carter, she received an endorsement from Baltimore Sun’s Editorial Board on the Sunday before the election on February 2, 2020. Paper endorsements aren’t what they use to be.

 

Epilogue

“This is for him,” Mfume referencing his friend Elijah Cummings as the crowd at the victory party wallowed in the joy of sending someone they knew back to congress. “Experience Matters.”  The newly minted Congressman drew his own personal comparisons to having a first-year doctor do heart surgery, or someone who just got their pilots license flying a 747. In an era of Donald Trump, one’s non-political achievements have pushed some non-politicians to believe they have the wherewithal to use their platform to take on the challenges of our times…NOT.

“I know the community and the community knows me.” Mfume will fill out the remainder of Rep. Cummings term but will have a second regular primary on April 28, 2020 to fill out the two remaining years.