Quirky process in 7th enters its next phase Tuesday's election pits congressional candidates to finish Mfume's term


The next phase of a historic, quirky process that began in December is scheduled Tuesday, when voters in the 7th District will have the opportunity to elect a congressman to finish the last nine months of former Rep. Kweisi Mfume's term.

The special congressional election next week pits Del. Elijah E. Cummings, a West Baltimore Democrat, against Kenneth Kondner, a Woodlawn Republican.

Mr. Cummings and Mr. Kondner, winners in last month's primary election, will face each other again in the Nov. 5 general election for the full, two-year congressional term that begins in January.

But despite the uniqueness of the race, voter turnout for the special election is expected to be woefully low -- maybe slightly more than 10 percent of the district's 270,000 registered voters in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, election and other officials say. Slightly more than 20 percent of voters in the district went to the polls last month, when the presidential primary also was held. Next Tuesday's election has no such extra draw.

"This is an unprecedented situation, and it makes it very hard to predict," said John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state and Gov. Parris N. Glendening's chief political strategist. "I do think that there are enough core voters in both parties to turn out" more than 10 percent.

The 7th District vacancy occurred in mid-February when Mr. Mfume, a five-term Democrat, left Congress to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

His announcement Dec. 9 that he was leaving set off a stampede of candidates -- a record-breaking field of 27 Democrats and five Republicans -- filing for the primary.

The timing of Mr. Mfume's exit meant that for the first time in Maryland history, a congressional vacancy was occurring in the same year as the congressional election. And the circumstances required the General Assembly to pass emergency legislation merging the special primary election to fill the 7th District vacancy with the state's regular March 5 primary.

The merged primaries meant that the Democratic and Republican winners will face each other twice this year -- once next Tuesday and again Nov. 5.

Adding to the unusual mix, city and county schools, which usually are closed for elections because the overwhelming majority of polling places are located in them, will remain open Election Day. The number of days that schools have been closed this year because of inclement weather precluded their closing again.

"We asked that the schools be closed, but we can only ask," said Barbara E. Jackson, the city's elections administrator.

While Mr. Cummings is favored to win in the district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 4-to-1, he is not treating the contest as a shoo-in against the underdog Republican.

"I am taking absolutely nothing for granted," said Mr. Cummings, 45, a four-term legislator and Maryland House speaker pro tem.

The well-financed Cummings campaign launched a radio advertising blitz over the weekend, and will be putting campaign literature and "thousands and thousands of signs" on the streets in the coming week, as well as making "a nonpartisan" appeal to ministers in the district to remind congregations that the special election is Tuesday, he said.

"Our concern is that a lot of people, because of the unusual nature of this special election, are assuming that it is all over -- or that the only other election is in November," Mr. Cummings said.

Mr. Kondner, 54, who owns a company that specializes in the manufacture of orthodontic dental appliances, is hoping that a low turnout will help him in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

"I think there's an outside chance I can do it because I think there's going to be a low turnout, and we are trying to get out the vote we think will vote for us," said Mr. Kondner, who ran against Mr. Mfume in 1990, 1992 and 1994.

But, he conceded, if the Democratic turnout is low, the Republican turnout probably will be equally low. "It does make it very frustrating," Mr. Kondner said.

In the 1994 race, Mr. Kondner carried half of the 32 Baltimore County precincts, but none in the city, where he knows he faces an uphill battle.

"The city is very, very difficult," he said, noting that three-quarters of the district's registered voters reside in Baltimore City.

In keeping with the extraordinary circumstances of the race, a write-in candidate has emerged in this special election. Barry Patrick Farley, 40, an unemployed security guard from Remington, filed with the state election board.

While Mr. Farley's name will not appear on the ballot in voting machines, it will appear on notices in polling places and in newspapers.

Mr. Farley, a Democrat who was a guard at Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore for 15 years before losing his job in 1994, said he had wanted to file as a candidate in the primary but "was lacking transportation at the time" to get to the state election board in Annapolis.

"I'm just trying to fulfill a dream," he said of his bid for Congress. "I feel people need a change, a change for the better."

Mr. Farley is a self-described "pro-life candidate" who favors capital punishment and school prayer. He said his priorities would be "quality and affordable housing and education" and helping small businesses.

"I know some people might not like this next one, but I'm an opponent of affirmative action, because I believe people should be hired on their own merits, not on their skin color," he said.

In a district that is nearly three-quarters black, he would be correct in assuming that this stance is not a selling point for a candidate.

Nevertheless, Mr. Farley vowed to "keep running till I win."

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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