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Political unknown F. Michael Higginbotham a financial factor in the 7th Congressional District race

Democratic Party candidate F. Michael Higginbotham, who is running in the 7th Congressional District, takes part in a debate Jan. 20 at Soul Harvest Church-Ministries.
Democratic Party candidate F. Michael Higginbotham, who is running in the 7th Congressional District, takes part in a debate Jan. 20 at Soul Harvest Church-Ministries.(Kenneth K. Lam)

Eighth in a series of articles on candidates for the 7th Congressional District.

F. Michael Higginbotham is spending like he means it.

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Since announcing his candidacy for the vacant 7th Congressional District seat, Higginbotham has dropped $406,970 on the race, seven times as much former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and three times that of former Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings — both considered front-runners.

And Higginbotham was also the first to appear on TV screens across the Baltimore region. He spent more than $48,000 starting this week on airtime with the area’s four major TV stations, according to Federal Communications Commission records. His ads began appearing Tuesday, beating Rockeymoore Cummings’ spots by a day and reaching the TV airwaves three days before Mfume’s.

That spending is absolutely necessary, said Sophia Silbergeld, a political strategist and director of the Baltimore-based Adeo Advocacy, to introduce Higginbotham to voters. A figure in the Baltimore legal community, where he’s taught civil rights and constitutional law since the 1980s, Higginbotham is a political unknown. As one person in a field of 24 Democrats in Tuesday’s special primary, that’s a major disadvantage.

His spending has begun to change that. He’s spending $506,000 of his own money and was one of only two candidates with more than $200,000 in the bank for the last three weeks of the campaign, according to his federal campaign finance report (Mfume was the other).

Higginbotham’s campaign appears to be sophisticated, Silbergeld said. He has employed the help of more than a half-dozen firms to coordinate ad buys, fundraising, polling, social media and research, and as a result, he’s made himself into a factor.

But Higginbotham is running against the clock. The special primary was scheduled after Cummings died Oct. 17 to fill the rest of his two-year term representing a district that includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

That’s a short window to get to know a candidate, even a well-funded one, said Mileah Kromer, an associate professor at Goucher College.

“I don’t know if he has enough time to build that name recognition,” she said.

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At campaign stops, Higginbotham conveys an intensity. He arrives early. He’s always punctual, friends said, a vestige of his father’s military background as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. He tracks his appointments on a black, hard-copy calendar, and while talking to voters, he frequently dips into a fat leather attaché case to retrieve news releases and campaign literature.

Speaking to a crowd at a recent event, he rocked back onto his heels and planted his hands firmly in both pockets, connoting an aw-shucks humility. Then, he spoke, and a law professor’s voice emerged, sharp and direct.

“When President Trump criticized this district, I was angry," he said, referencing the president’s tweets last summer in which he called Baltimore a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess."

“He doesn’t know who we are," Higginbotham said, removing one hand from his pocket to punctuate his words with a closed fist. “You send me to Washington, D.C, he’s going to find out."

The tough talk about president’s remarks, a fixture of Higginbotham’s campaign stops and ads, is also a nod to the man the professor hopes to replace: Cummings. Cummings was a frequent critic of Trump; he had criticized the administration’s immigration policy shortly before Trump’s weeklong outburst against him, the 7th District and the city of Baltimore.

Higginbotham, a graduate of Brown and Yale universities who has taught at the University of Baltimore since 1988, believes he’s well-equipped to fill those shoes. He doesn’t mince words when he speaks of Trump or his travel ban, which he said is an assault on the U.S. Constitution.

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“We’ve got a constitutional crisis going on in this country, and my experience, my knowledge will be very helpful," he said. “I know the democratic process, I know the principles this country was founded upon. I can make a real contribution.”

José Anderson, who has worked with Higginbotham since he came to the University of Baltimore, said Higginbotham’s constitutional expertise would help fill a void.

“You at least replace the primary strength of Congressman Cummings,” he said.

Higginbotham said that if elected he would work on the district’s needs: improving transportation and education and addressing an addiction crisis, according to a questionnaire he completed for The Baltimore Sun Voter Guide. One focus would be on addressing economic inequality by making federal funding available to underperforming schools and capping student loan interest rates at 3%, among other ideas. He wants the federal government to improve regional rail transportation and support public access to Wi-Fi.

Anderson described Higginbotham as conscientious, diligent and slow to anger — unless he perceives an injustice. "He really has a disdain for inequality of any kind,” Anderson said.

The concept of fair play has figured heavily in Higginbotham’s life, driving him toward a career in law. On the campaign trail, he tells a story about Los Angeles police stopping and illegally searching him as a black youth. Higginbotham speaks of complaining to his father and being unhappy with the response.

“He would always say to me, ‘Life isn’t fair,’ ” Higginbotham said. “For me, it should be. This is America. We have an Equal Protection Clause. It should be more fair.”

That quest drove Higginbotham to work in places such as the Public Justice Center, one of Maryland’s largest public interest firms. Higginbotham had West Coast contacts from a stint clerking for a judge with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and he was able to attract “national powerhouse people” to energize the center’s work, Anderson said.

During his decade-plus stint with the center, beginning in the 1990s, the group fought cases on behalf of homeless students, for detainees at the Baltimore City Detention Center on their right to medical care, and on behalf of Eastern Shore poultry workers denied extra pay for working overtime.

Higginbotham has also worked to diversify the region’s law professionals. In 2011, with a $1 million endowment from Peter Angelos, majority owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Higginbotham began a scholarship program that identifies students at Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities in their sophomore and junior years as future attorneys. The program helps them apply to law school and throughout their legal studies. The program was recognized by the American Bar Association in 2017 and is believed to be one of just a few of its kind in the country.

But Higginbotham’s accomplishments will mean little if voters don’t get to know him. That’s where he’s hoping ads will help. This week, in addition to airing TV ads, Higginbotham released one of the first negative ads of the campaign, Kromer noted. Running only online so far, it features a raft of unflattering headlines about Mfume and Rockeymoore Cummings.

Higginbotham said he felt it was critical for voters to see the “contrast” between himself and other candidates in the race.

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Higginbotham has demonstrated he’s willing to spend the money to win, Kromer said.

“At least he’s committed to being a factor in this race,” she said. “He’s in it to win it. But so is everybody else.”

F. Michael Higginbotham

Age: 62

Home: Baltimore

Family: Single

Education: Bachelor’s degree in classics and ancient Greek history, Brown University, 1979; law degree, Yale University, 1982; master’s degree in international law and human rights, Cambridge University, 1985

Experience: Law professor at University of Baltimore School of Law, 1988-present; interim dean of University of Baltimore School of Law, 2011-2012; book author, “Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America,” 2013

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