Fifth in a series of articles on candidates for the 7th Congressional District.
Kweisi Mfume steps out of his Porsche in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood and heads to a campaign stop at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens, where a woman in the gym recognizes him immediately.
“I voted for him before and will again,” says retiree Jovita Harris-Okonkwo after the former congressman greeted her as she exercised on a step machine. “It’s a comfort level.”
Twenty-four years after leaving Congress to become president of the NAACP, the 71-year-old Mfume is hoping to renew old acquaintances — and his political life — to win back the 7th Congressional District seat he held for a decade.
The Democrat regularly zooms to events in the leased Porsche, a fast car for a speedy race. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan had to quickly schedule an election to replace Mfume’s friend, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who died in October. The special primary is Feb. 4.
In such a truncated campaign, there is little time for lesser-known candidates to introduce themselves to voters. The Mfume campaign believes that plays to their candidate’s advantage in the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
“I’ve always been around,” says Mfume, who chronicled his early life in Baltimore in a 1996 autobiography, “No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream.” In it, he describes a misguided young man who quits school, fathers five children out of wedlock and runs with a gang.
The book recounts a street-corner “epiphany” one summer night nearly 50 years ago, which Mfume says began his transformation from an aimless punk in West Baltimore to an influential black leader who led the NAACP for nine years.
Mfume says that on that July evening in 1971, he was in a craps game when he saw his mother — who had died of cancer more than seven years earlier — looking at him, first with sadness, then with love.
“All I could hear was my mother’s voice — it sounded exactly like it sounded the last night that she was alive — just saying that she wanted more from me, she expected more from me, that she loved me. It transformed my thinking and my beliefs and my faith,” he said in an interview.
Mfume, who is Baptist, describes it as a story of redemption and faith that makes him accessible to voters. “I think it makes it easier for them to relate to me,” he said.
Born Frizzell Gray, he attended Morgan State University, changed his name and became a radio personality at WEBB-AM and later WEAA-FM. He still possesses a rich, disc jockey voice.
Voters elected him to the Baltimore City Council in 1978 and to Congress in 1986.
“He was just a very solid member of Congress,” said Democrat Tom McMillen, who served with Mfume in Maryland’s House delegation. “He’s always been a great orator. He was well liked in the Congress, which is always important. He wasn’t a bomb thrower.”
Mfume was named NAACP president in 1996 and stayed until 2004. He was credited with steering the historic civil rights organization out of debt through fundraising and fiscal austerity.
He abruptly left the job, saying he had no specific plans other than taking “a break” and spending time with his children. But a recent review of records by The Baltimore Sun found Mfume left following the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, several negative performance reviews and a 2004 vote by the executive committee of the NAACP’s board not to grant him a new contract.
The departure followed "a long period of growing dissatisfaction with high and constant staff turnovers, falling revenues, falling memberships, three consecutive negative performance appraisals, highly questionable hiring and promotion decisions, creation of new staff positions with no job descriptions, and personal behavior which placed each of us at legal and financial risk,” wrote then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond as he prepared to share the executive committee’s vote on Mfume with the full board.
Mfume declined to be interviewed about the records in Bond’s archives. He said in a statement: “Sometimes strong-willed leaders have differences of opinion. Julian and I were no different.” He said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001.
Mfume’s leadership at the NAACP was the subject of two internal investigations that described allegations of nepotism and sexual harassment at its headquarters. Among other allegations, a former manager alleged that after she rebuffed an advance by Mfume, she was passed over for raises and a promotion. The NAACP paid her about $100,000 to avoid a lawsuit, according to an anonymous source who described the agreement’s terms to The Sun in 2005.
During his campaign announcement in November, Mfume — as he has in the past — acknowledged an affair with an NAACP subordinate.
“As a single man, I had a dating relationship with a single woman for six or seven months. It was clearly a bonehead thing to do,” he said. Mfume said he knew of no other payments to women during his tenure.
In a later interview, he said he was surprised he is still being asked about his mistake. “My guess is, that’s not the first time that that has happened with people in our society,” he said.
While he said it was “dumb” for anybody to date someone who works under them, he asked voters to “judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me.”
In recent years, Mfume has served on the boards of universities and associations, and is the longtime chairman of Morgan State’s board of regents. He hadn’t run for political office since losing a 2006 primary for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Baltimore.
Running now for his old House seat “was a very difficult decision,” said his wife, Tiffany Mfume, a Morgan State administrator. “We’re doing really well in our lives. We’re really enjoying our families and the blessings that we have.”
But she said Mfume “had such a great friendship with Elijah spanning four-plus decades of his life. He feels, and I feel, that he has almost a commitment to honor his memory.”
Mfume says his congressional priorities would include lowering the cost of prescription drugs, improving the Affordable Care Act health care system, and reinstating a federal assault weapons ban.
He calls himself “a progressive moderate,” saying he is “very, very progressive” on social issues, but “a little more moderate” on fiscal concerns.
State Sen. Jill Carter criticized Mfume at a debate Monday for supporting in Congress a 1994 crime bill blamed by progressives for fueling “mass incarceration” disproportionately affecting minorities. He replied that murders and other crimes were exceedingly high at the time and that other progressives — such as current presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — also backed the measure.
In campaign appearances, Mfume has been touting his congressional seniority. Former members who return to the House are typically granted more senior status than brand-new arrivals. It is up to House Democratic leaders to decide how much seniority a returning member gets. Seniority is important because it helps lawmakers move up the ladder towards leadership positions, such as subcommittee and committee chairmanships.
Other Democrats in the race include Carter; Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, Cummings’ widow and a former Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman; longtime Cummings staffer Harry Spikes; Maryland House of Delegates Majority Whip Talmadge Branch; University of Baltimore law professor F. Michael Higginbotham; state Del. Terri L. Hill, a physician, and community activist Saafir Rabb.
After the primary, a special general election will be held April 28 to fill the rest of Cummings’ two-year term. April 28 is also the date of the regular U.S. House primary for candidates who want to win a full term of their own.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Coming Tuesday: Terri Hill.
Family: Wife, six children.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Morgan State University, master’s degree in international global studies from Johns Hopkins University.
Experience: Chairman, Morgan State board of regents, 2012-present; U.S. House of Representatives; member, 1987-1997; Baltimore City Council, 1979-1986; president, NAACP, 1996-2004.