The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, an influential pastor of a Baltimore mega-church, said Monday he will run for the U.S. House seat held by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, arguing that the city needs new leadership in Washington.
Bryant, a 44-year-old Democrat and pastor at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore, told several dozen supporters gathered in Bolton Hill that city schools are falling short, the middle class is shrinking, crime is high and, in too many instances, the police are "out of control."
But the dynamic preacher, who said he leads a congregation of 12,000, offered a mixed message on Cummings, an 11-term incumbent who is considering a run for Senate. Bryant would not commit to challenge Cummings should the lawmaker seek re-election.
"I represent a new generation that's coming forward, this whole movement of activists that are emerging nationwide," Bryant said. "I think that [Cummings] has laid a tremendous foundation of success to build on."
Bryant was asked repeatedly if he would still run for the House if Cummings decides to seek re-election to the 7th Congressional District. The pastor would say only that he'd have a conversation with Cummings if that happened.
Bryant said "all of my indicators" and "my intel" say Cummings is running for Senate. But he added that he had not spoken with Cummings about his decision to seek the House seat.
Cummings, 64, held a news conference hours later at Coppin State University to say he has not made up his mind. The top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said he has no plans to do so for several weeks.
Cummings sent a statement earlier Monday to make that same point — that he hasn't made a decision — under letterhead that referenced the "campaign to re-elect" Cummings to the House.
"Anybody who assumes that I will not be running for the 7th Congressional District of Maryland is making a definite, premature assumption," Cummings said. "I'm going to do what I have to do, no matter what."
Cummings has long been considered a formidable potential candidate in the race to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who will retire in 2017. Polls show that he is well-known statewide, extremely popular in the Baltimore region and that his support transcends racial lines.
His influence only grew in the days following the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died a week after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. Cummings — a former state lawmaker elected to Congress in 1996 — marched with protesters, pressured the Justice Department to intervene and became a voice for the city on national television.
But Cummings has yet to offer concrete evidence that he wants the Senate job. He hasn't ramped up fundraising efforts, which would be necessary to pay for a statewide contest, and several potential allies have made endorsements of candidates already in the race.
Reps. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County are the two Democrats who have entered the Senate race so far. Two Republicans have filed to run, including former Senate candidate Richard J. Douglas. Chrys Kefalas, a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is considering a run.
Bryant, who lives in Canton, walked a delicate a balance in discussing Cummings. He said he isn't "opposing anyone" but rather that he was "proposing new ideas."
But he also offered several general criticism of current political leaders in Congress — saying that "we do not need leadership that's just going along to get along."
Bryant offered few details about how he would approach the job differently than Cummings, other than to say he would be more "aggressive" on economic issues. He said in an interview that he would have opposed President Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran — a pact that most Democrats, including Cummings, supported.
Bryant's local congregation and the sizable following his sermons have nationally offer a potentially significant political and donor base from which to draw. Asked if he would ask parishioners to contribute financially to his campaign, Bryant laughed.
"Yes. I'm going to ask everybody who's got a dollar to donate. I'm asking you," he joked to a reporter.
But Bryant also starts at a disadvantage: Cummings has more than $918,000 in his campaign account. And by not committing to take on Cummings if he files for re-election, he risks turning off potential donors.
Bryant is a father of five and the former youth leader of the NAACP. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science and international studies from Morehouse College in Atlanta, a master of divinity degree from Duke University and a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation.
He dropped out of high school before his senior year, later earning a GED.
Bryant became a persistent voice in Baltimore in the weeks and months following Gray's death, often appearing with city leaders but also leading protests — including a unique, rush-hour traffic-halting demonstration on a main roadway into Baltimore.
At the same time, Bryant is likely to face questions about not living in the district he hopes to represent. Members of Congress are not required to live in their district — Rep. John Delaney of Montgomery County lives just outside his — but those who do so open themselves up to criticism from opponents.
Bryant's personal life was exposed during a divorce with his wife in 2008. In the initial divorce filing, Bryant's wife accused the pastor of adultery, cruel treatment and "excessively vicious conduct" that caused "reasonable apprehension of bodily suffering so as to render cohabitation unsafe," according to an article in The Baltimore Sun at the time.
Bryant also came under fire at the time for his lifestyle, which included a Bentley and a multimillion-dollar Canton waterfront property. The divorce complaint stated that Bryant earned more than $350,000 a year.