Landing a congressional seat is a dream for many politicians ― a position that rarely opens up, can be held for decades, and marks the pinnacle of a career.
So, the sudden death Thursday of Democrat U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings ― a venerated figure who mentored a younger generation of public servants ― leaves many lawmakers, even while mourning, facing a tough decision.
Should they defer to Cummings’ wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who many believe would be a logical successor? Or should they run for the office themselves?
“From where I’m sitting, they should defer to her,” said Lenneal J. Henderson, emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Baltimore. “She has the knowledge, the skills and the leadership ability. But knowing Baltimore culture the way I do, there’s a Machiavellian aspect to it. It’s likely to be every person for themselves.”
Rockeymoore Cummings is the chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, the head of a public policy consulting firm, former candidate for governor and earned a doctorate in political science. She released a statement Thursday asking for “time and space to grieve," and hasn’t commented about whether she would seek the 7th District seat.
That hasn’t stopped many from discussing possible candidates. How about Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby of Baltimore, the twice-elected top prosecutor in Maryland’s largest city? Or Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party? Or former national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat who held the seat before and would bring that experience to the job?
Farajii Muhammad, a radio show host on Morgan State University’s WEAA-FM, said phones are blowing up over who will run.
“The conversation has turned to, ‘Who’s next?’" Muhammad said. “A lot of names are being thrown out there. He was such a big figure. The expectations for that seat are sky-high.”
Mfume did not respond to calls seeking comment. Both Mosby and Ball said they were focused on mourning a man they saw as their mentor and wouldn’t immediately comment on any decisions about whether to run.
“I’m completely shocked and devastated. He was a friend, mentor and trusted adviser," Mosby said. “He mentored a new generation of leaders. My focus is not thinking along those lines at this point. I’m not there yet. Not that at this point."
Ball said he views Cummings as a “mentor and a friend” and wouldn’t comment on whether he’ll think about running.
“Right now, our focus is on mourning the loss of our friend,” Ball said.
Other potential Democratic candidates include: state senators Jill P. Carter, Antonio Hayes and Cory V. McCray of Baltimore; and delegates Vanessa Atterbeary of Howard County, Charles E. Sydnor III of Baltimore County and Talmadge Branch, Keith Haynes and Nick J. Mosby of Baltimore. There’s even been talk of former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Nick Mosby is married to Marilyn Mosby, and has said he’s considering running for City Council president in 2020.
“Elijah Cummings was bigger than life," Hayes said. "Whoever tries to fill his shoes has to live up to big expectations. I’m flattered people consider me for a role that is as big and significant as it is.”
“I’m not ruling it out,” McCray said Friday.
“I can’t say I haven’t thought about it,” Branch said. “Whoever takes his place will have to be someone who can hit the ground running. It will have to be someone who can lead the district.”
Said Haynes: “Out of respect for his memory, obviously it’s an issue that’s going to have to be addressed. If it’s the will of the constituents to entertain that, we’ll decide at the appropriate time.”
The potential candidates could have to start making decisions soon. The congressional seat could be filled as early as February ― or remain empty for more than a year ― depending on when Maryland’s governor decides to schedule a special election.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has wide latitude to decide how quickly to schedule a primary and a general election. He isn’t expected to announce his decision until after Cummings’ funeral Friday and has until Oct. 28 to issue a proclamation with the election dates.
Under Maryland law, the special primary election shall be held on a Tuesday that is at least 65 days after the proclamation is issued and the special general election shall be held on a Tuesday at least 65 days after the primary.
If Hogan moves as quickly as the law allows, a new representative could be seated in February. To keep the seat, that person would have to stand again for election in Maryland’s regular April 28 primary. That would mean three elections ― a special primary, a special general election, and another primary ― in a matter of a few months.
But Hogan could elect to leave the seat vacant longer by scheduling the special primary on the same day as the regular primary, April 28. That would save the state and the counties in the district the shared expense of conducting a special election, but would leave the 7th District without a new representative for more than a year, until after the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College, noted it’s “not uncommon” for a spouse to succeed a congressman. It’s happened dozens of times in U.S. history, including the last time a Maryland congressman died in office. Beverly Byron replaced her husband, Goodloe Byron, in 1979 and kept the 3rd District seat until 1993.
The more quickly the election comes, the better it is for Rockeymoore Cummings’ chances, Eberly said. If Hogan delays the election until the primary, it’s likely more challengers would enter, he said.
“This is a safely Democratic seat. Whoever wins can probably hold onto that seat for their life,” Eberly said. “That is a hard thing to say ‘No’ to just to be respectful.”
Eberly said he thinks Rawlings-Blake could be strong candidate if she decides to run, given her executive experience.
“If Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is looking for a comeback, this is a great place to aim,” he said. “Why not? Voters love a comeback story.”
Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, served as the representative for the 7th District since 1996. Before that, he spent 13 years as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, rising to speaker pro tem.
When the Democrats took back the U.S. House in January, Cummings became chairman of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has a leading role in the impeachment investigation of Republican President Donald Trump.
When Cummings first won his congressional seat in 1996, he beat 26 other candidates in the Democratic primary, including a who’s-who of notable Baltimoreans: the Rev. Frank Reid; prominent lawyer A. Dwight Pettit; future Deputy Mayor Salima Siler Marriott; state Sen. Dolores Kelley of Baltimore County, and delegates Clarence Davis and Kenneth C. Montague of Baltimore.
Since then, the district has been redrawn to include greater portions of Baltimore County and Howard County, opening up the possibility for a candidate from the suburbs to win.
Atterbeary said people are encouraging her to run.
“People started contacting me yesterday, texting me and calling me,” said Atterbeary, a Columbia Democrat who is vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s something I definitely will think about. I was shocked by Congressman Cummings’ passing. It’s a huge, huge loss for our country. He was a fighter to the end. I’m not sure what I will do. Those are big shoes to fill.”
Nina Kasniunas, an assistant political science professor at Goucher College, said Baltimoreans could rally around Rockeymoore Cummings to keep the seat in the hands of a city resident. Women’s groups also would be likely to support her, especially because Maryland currently has an all-male congressional delegation of nine.
“There will be a lot of pressure on Dr. Rockeymoore to consider it from folks in Baltimore not wanting to give up that seat to someone from the suburbs,” Kasiunas said. “I would hope there would be some deference to her. It’s not like she’s a novice at this. Not only is she is the head of the Maryland Democratic Party, she has experience with public policy. If she decides she wants to run, she could have an advantage.”