After an 11-week sprint to a primary victory, Kweisi Mfume allowed himself to pause momentarily Wednesday and imagine how it would feel to return to Congress after stepping down a generation ago.
“It’s going to be surreal the first day I walk back into the congressional office that I walked out of,” said Mfume, 71, who left the House in 1996 to become president of the NAACP.
But the Baltimore Democrat quickly added: “I know I’ve got two elections first.”
And he said the upcoming 7th Congressional District elections will require a different strategy from the one he employed in handily winning Tuesday’s special primary for nominees to fill the remainder of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term.
Mfume captured 43% of the vote, topping a field of 24 Democrats that included a former state Democratic Party chairwoman who is Cummings’ widow, four state legislators and a law professor.
At his victory party, Mfume — who said he knew Cummings for 42 years — pointed skyward and proclaimed: “Elijah, this is for you.”
Kimberly Klacik, 38, a nonprofit founder and Baltimore County Republican Central committee member, won the Republican nomination.
Although the district’s Democrats hold a 4-1 registration advantage, Klacik said she believes "people really are ready for something different.”
“I know a lot of our focus is going to be in the city area where you saw those heavy Democratic numbers,” Klacik said. “I would love to tap into those on the edge and not thinking about the party but about the community.”
There are two elections April 28 in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. A special general election will pit Mfume and Klacik against each other to immediately occupy the seat for the duration of Cummings’ term. In a second election the same day, the parties will choose their nominees from what is expected to remain a broad field for the November election to a full, two-year term beginning in January.
The April 28 elections are likely to have sharply higher turnout than Tuesday’s because they will include a number of contests, including a presidential primary and municipal races in Baltimore. About 18% of registered voters turned out Tuesday, although only registered Democrats and Republicans were allowed to vote, as primaries in Maryland don’t allow unaffiliated voters to take part.
The expected influx of voters in the spring will create a new dynamic for the candidates, requiring significantly broader outreach.
“We began this optimistically with a double strategy,” Mfume said in an interview. “Now, we have a second strategy that I’m not at liberty to talk about, except to say we’ve thought about it, with all the nuances and contingencies. We recognize the electorate will be larger, more diverse. There are a lot of motivations that will be driving people to the polls.”
As he did Tuesday, Mfume is expected to tap into political and social networks that have aided him in the past. He served on the Baltimore City Council before his tenure in Congress, and he received strong support from many of the city’s traditional sources of political power. He received endorsements from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore, the Afro-American Newspapers and the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO. Campaign donors included Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy and Morgan State University President David Wilson.
Supporters say he benefits from his Baptist church affiliation and his membership in the Prince Hall Masons — a black fraternal organization — as well as in the Omega Psi Phi and Sigma Pi Phi fraternities.
“And keep in mind he is chairman of the board of the largest historically black university in the city (Morgan State),” said University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson, a mentor of Cummings who is supporting Mfume’s candidacy.
“It’s not like he left Congress and disappeared,” Gibson said. “I think what we’re talking about is a long-term association with Baltimore and Baltimore interests.”
Mfume is from Baltimore. His 1996 autobiography recounts his rise from a gang member to an influential black leader who then led the NAACP for nine years. He left the national civil rights organization after an employee threatened a lawsuit over sexual harassment and some board members expressed concerns with his job performance.
Maryland Policy & Politics
He asked voters to “judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me.”
His victory party was attended by some supporters who have known him for decades and returned to assist him this year — a reunion of sorts.
Ronald Witherspoon, 60, a regional State Highway Administration manager, said he has volunteered on every one of Mfume’s congressional campaigns. He has saved a beat-up pair of Converse sneakers that he wore for years when knocking on doors or campaigning for Mfume at polling places.
“They were white. They’re gray now,” Witherspoon said.
He brought a framed, 1987 photograph of himself with Mfume to Tuesday’s party.
“I wanted some of the young people to know that, ‘Hey, I was with Kweisi when he started,'” Witherspoon said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.