Former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced Monday he is running for his former 7th District seat in Congress to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings ― a move that should further energize the contest while renewing scrutiny over Mfume’s record leading the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
Among the best-known of the potential candidates, Mfume, 71, served as a Democrat in Congress from 1987 to 1996 and was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1993 to 1995. He was credited with helping to save programs that aided black businesses and supporting Democratic President Bill Clinton’s agenda.
He left Capitol Hill to become president of the NAACP from 1996 through 2004 and helped overcome years of deficits there and rebuild the organization’s membership numbers.
But Mfume’s leadership at the NAACP was also the subject of two internal investigations that described allegations of nepotism and sexual harassment at the organization’s Baltimore headquarters.
Among other allegations, Michele Speaks, a former manager whose complaint to the NAACP board launched one investigation, alleged that after rebuffing an advance by Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion. The NAACP paid her about $100,000 from its treasury to avoid a lawsuit or other legal action by Speaks, according to an anonymous source who described the confidential agreement’s terms to The Baltimore Sun in May 2005.
Reached Friday by phone, Speaks said she could not comment on the matter. Through a spokesman, Mfume also declined to comment.
Mfume has previously denied any wrongdoing, but he did acknowledge an affair with a staff member while he was running the organization.
In 2005, while running for U.S. Senate, Mfume called the affair a brief, “boneheaded” mistake, but denied allegations that he gave the staffer preferential treatment on the job.
“It was very short-lived, and terminated because I recognized it was a boneheaded thing to do," he said at the time.
He also attributed the allegations against him to the views of one staff member, whom he did not identify: “It’s clear these are unsubstantiated, unproven allegations from one employee to the board," he said in 2005.
Mfume lost a close primary race to Ben Cardin, who defeated Republican Michael Steele in the general election.
Born in 1948 as Frizzell Gray, he changed his name in 1972 to Kweisi Mfume, which means “conquering son of kings." He holds degrees from Morgan State University and the Johns Hopkins University.
In his autobiography, “No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream,” Mfume tells how he rose from a black enclave in Baltimore County to win election to the Baltimore City Council and then the U.S. House of Representatives before taking the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mfume is currently the chairman of the board of regents at Morgan State and vice chairman of the board of Research America, which advocates for funding for medical and health research.
Mfume and other interested people must act quickly to enter the race to replace Cummings, a Democrat who died Oct. 17. There’s a deadline of Nov. 20 to file to run in a special primary Feb. 4 in the district, which includes parts of the city of Baltimore and the counties of Baltimore and Howard. After the special primary, a special general election will be held April 28, with early voting beginning April 16. The winner of that election will fill the remainder of Cummings’ term, which runs into January 2021.
April 28 is also the day of Maryland’s regularly scheduled primary for congressional seats. So, anyone who wants to keep the seat beyond January 2021 also must run in that primary and advance to the regular general election in November 2020.
Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Mfume has a better-than-average chance to win the seat because of how crowded the field is likely to become.
“If there are 13 candidates running the primary, he’s got as good as shot as any," Norris said. “But he doesn’t immediately strike me as someone who is going to have a better chance than a lot of young people in the Democratic primary.”
Norris said the accusations about his tenure at the NAACP could haunt him.
“He’s had some personal issues that will probably come up in the campaign,” Norris said. “That’s not going to go over well in the #MeToo era.”
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Cummings’ widow and chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, is considering running, as is former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also a Democrat.
Democratic Del. Talmadge Branch of East Baltimore said Thursday he was entering the race, while Democratic state Sen. Jill P. Carter of West Baltimore has announced an exploratory committee.
Rebecca Murphy, a political consultant who teaches communications at Loyola University Maryland, said voters will face a tough choice when considering Mfume.
“On the one hand, Kweisi is extraordinary. He’s experienced and thoughtful. He knows Congress well. He’s a profoundly decent human being,” Murphy said. “On the other hand, I would just worry it’s a little early for him to come out until Maya says what she wants to do."
Murphy said she didn’t know details about his tenure at the NAACP, but that it’s tough to succeed as a candidate when “baggage” serves as a “distraction.”
“Somebody young could bring an exciting new perspective to the race,” Murphy said. “Baltimoreans are fortunate to have so much talent interested in the job.”
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Others who have expressed interest in running in the Democratic primary include: state delegates Terri L. Hill, who represents areas of both Baltimore and Howard counties; Keith Haynes of Baltimore; Vanessa Atterbeary of Howard; Charles Sydnor and Jay Jalisi of Baltimore County; and state Sen. Cory McCray of Baltimore.
Loyola University Maryland Professor Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, who also hosts a radio show on WEAA-FM, said the energy in the congressional race is “overshadowing” an important race for mayor of Baltimore that is going on simultaneously.
“He comes in with a lot of experience,” Whitehead said of Mfume. “Even though he has some baggage, many people remember his voice and his contributions. Kweisi coming in now will become the focus until we figure what Dr. Cummings and Senator Jill P. Carter decide what they’re going to do.”
Three Democratic candidates have filed to seek the party’s nomination for the full, two-year term, including Dr. Mark Gosnell, a pulmonologist with MedStar Health. Saafir Rabb, a community activist, announced Wednesday that he is running, too.
On the Republican side, Liz Matory is one of five candidates who has filed for the regular primary. She tried unsuccessfully last year to unseat Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd District.