Women seeking the vacant 7th Congressional District seat talked personally at a candidates’ forum about sexual violence and harassment, with one — Maya Rockeymoore Cummings — saying her experience years ago as a victim of such violence helped shape her professional and political priorities.
Rockeymoore Cummings, 48, the widow of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and former chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said at the Howard County Democratic event Saturday that, “as a victim of intimate partner violence in my past, I will stand for women’s issues across the board.”
She said those issues included promoting women’s reproductive rights, strengthening the federal Violence Against Women Act and fighting to protect women from trafficking.
Four of the nine candidates appearing at the Ellicott City forum were women: Rockeymoore Cummings, Del. Terri L. Hill, state Sen. Jill P. Carter, and dentist and speech pathologist Leslie Grant. Maryland has no women in its eight-seat U.S. House delegation, and both its U.S. senators are men.
The candidates — among 24 Democrats in the race — are vying for the nomination in Tuesday’s special primary election for the seat of Cummings, who died Oct. 17.
The other candidates participating Saturday were House of Delegates Majority Whip Talmadge Branch, University of Baltimore law professor F. Michael Higginbotham, community activist Saafir Rabb, university professor Paul Konka and pulmonologist Dr. Mark Gosnell.
Eight candidates are competing on the Republican side.
In an interview after the 90-minute forum, Rockeymoore Cummings, who married the longtime congressman in 2008, said her background as “a survivor of intimate partner violence” in her college years in Texas left a lasting influence on her life.
“It happened when I was an undergraduate at Prairie View A&M University,” she said. “And it basically caused me to look deeper and to not only understand society from the perspective of civil rights and social justice based on race, but also based on gender.”
Carter also touched on her experiences.
“I personally experienced sexual harassment in the General Assembly and in other areas of my life,” she said. “The statistics show that about 54% of women in the workplace experience some type of gender discrimination or harassment ... One of the ways we help to eradicate it, of course, is to get more women in power.”
At the forum, Hill seized on the fact all of Maryland’s U.S. representatives are men.
The retirement of U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in 2016 and the departure of U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards to run for Mikulski’s seat left the state’s congressional delegation without a woman for the first time in more than 50 years.
“For us not to put a woman in that seat I think is shameful,” said Hill, a physician. “As Marylanders we should be embarrassed, especially when we have high-qualified women. I think the point is this: having allies is important — and we’ve got great male allies — but it’s not the same as being in the lane and understanding the lived experience.”
The forum, organized by Howard County Democratic organizations, was held in Ellicott City and was the latest in a string of forums and town halls in the race. There have been few formal debates, in part because the number of candidates raises questions of how many to invite and what the ground rules might be.
Other notable topics included climate change and immigration.
Among those not attending was former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume. His campaign said he was at a prayer service in his honor at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore. He sent a representative to the forum who recounted his biography and touted his candidacy.
Mfume held the 7th District seat until being named national NAACP president in 1996. His 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 Baltimore Sun in 2005.
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During his campaign announcement in November, Mfume — as he has in the past — acknowledged an affair with an NAACP subordinate, saying he made a mistake. Mfume said he knew of no other payments to women during his tenure.
“Judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me,” Mfume said recently.
At Saturday’s forum, Rockeymoore Cummings said, “There are some people who call themselves leaders who actually turn their workplaces into harems.” Asked in an interview if she was referring to any specific candidate, Rockeymoore Cummings did not reply.
“Some leaders have a track record of using their workplaces as opportunities to exploit those who work for them,” she said.
After Tuesday’s special primary, a special general election will be held April 28 to fill the rest of Cummings’ two-year term, which expires in January.
April 28 is also the date of the regular U.S. House primary. Candidates who want to win a full term of their own representing the 7th District must run in that race, as well.
The district includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.