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Supporters gathered around former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, at the podium, for his Nov. 4, 2019, announcement in Baltimore that he is running for his former seat in the 7th Congressional District. At his right is his wife, Tiffany Mfume, and at his left in front is Larry Gibson.
Supporters gathered around former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, at the podium, for his Nov. 4, 2019, announcement in Baltimore that he is running for his former seat in the 7th Congressional District. At his right is his wife, Tiffany Mfume, and at his left in front is Larry Gibson. (Amy Davis)

Since the start of his congressional campaign, Kweisi Mfume has met questions about his record with women — including an allegation of sexual harassment — in part by pointing to an endorsement from the National Organization for Women.

But the endorsement is not for Mfume’s run in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. It’s from his 2006 bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

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The group’s political action committee is objecting to his citing it now.

“NOW PAC’s policy on endorsements is clear — a past endorsement is never a guarantee of future support for any candidate," said Toni Van Pelt, the PAC’s chairwoman, in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. “We do not approve of the Mfume campaign’s use of a 15-year-old statement to suggest NOW PAC’s position in the 2020 election cycle. NOW PAC has not made an endorsement in the 7th District primary.”

The Mfume campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mfume, who served in Congress decades ago before leaving to run the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is seeking his old seat in the U.S. House. It became vacant in October with the death of Elijah Cummings. The primary in the special election to fill the seat for the remainder of Cummings’ two-year term is Feb. 4.

The old endorsement has been a part of the Mfume campaign’s efforts to show his candidacy has female support despite lingering questions about past allegations of wrongdoing, specifically in relation to women who worked for him during his tenure as NAACP president in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Mfume was accused of sexual harassment by one female employee, and of having an inappropriate relationship with another. The employee who alleged harassment — she claimed Mfume passed her over for promotion after she rebuffed an advance from him — received a $100,000 settlement from the NAACP. Mfume has always denied any harassment.

Mfume has acknowledged a separate relationship with another subordinate, calling it a “boneheaded” mistake, but has denied showing her favoritism, as others in the organization have alleged.

Each time the Mfume campaign has shared the endorsement, it has noted that it is from the earlier Senate race. But observers and challengers say the inference is that a group that bills itself as “the largest organization of feminist grassroots activists in the United States” still supports him.

Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said candidates shouldn’t use old endorsements in new races without the endorsing body’s permission. The Mfume campaign “trotting out a 14- or 15-year-old endorsement to undercut criticism that he is currently getting about misbehavior" was "a no-no, because that implies they are still endorsing him.”

State Sen. Jill Carter, one of Mfume’s opponents in the Democratic primary, said she is not surprised NOW would draw a distinction between its past endorsement and any position it might take in the present, particularly given the “problematic” allegations against Mfume and the increased attention paid to such claims in recent years.

“Over the last few years with the #MeToo movement, more women are coming out publicly to say that sexual harassment has happened to them,” Carter said. “I would think that the National Organization for Women today would be in a different place and a different posture. I think today, there is zero tolerance for that.”

Mfume, now 71, faced a torrent of questions about the allegations in 2005 and 2006 as he ran for Senate. Those questions arose again when he announced his new candidacy in November, and staff walked around the event handing out preprinted copies of the old endorsement.

Then last month, when The Sun published details about his abrupt departure from the NAACP, based on a review of former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond’s records, Mfume pointed to the former endorsement as one of his bona fides. And law professor and Mfume surrogate Larry Gibson followed up with a letter to the editor in which he referenced the 2006 endorsement, arguing it was important context to what he called “the gender accusations" against Mfume.

The Senate endorsement quoted two NOW officials at the time: then-national President Kim Gandy, and then-Maryland chapter President Duchy Trachtenberg.

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Gandy said she recalled the endorsement — in which she called Mfume “a passionate, articulate and effective advocate for change” — but could not comment on the current race.

Trachtenberg said she remains an ardent supporter of Mfume and would endorse him again, although she is no longer a NOW official.

She said she suggested to him that he make use of the old endorsement again.

“This is a man who has a long record of serving his community,” the former Democratic Montgomery County Council member said. “That was important to NOW, and I think that would be very important to voters in 2020.”

The 2006 endorsement was based on “a number of factors, one of them being his long record, both in Congress and as the head of NAACP, on equality issues for women," Trachtenberg said. “The PAC was particularly impressed with his understanding of poverty and how big of a factor that is for moms in this country, and in Maryland."

She said Mfume was questioned about the sexual harassment and favoritism allegations, which already had been reported at the time, and “took some ownership” for “poor judgment.”

“He didn’t avoid answering questions about it, and clearly leadership was satisfied by the response that he gave,” she said.

Trachtenberg is one of three Mfume supporters quoted in a campaign pamphlet mailed to voters. In it, she is identified as a former NOW official.

The campaign of Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who is running for her late husband’s seat, said if voters want to look for support from women’s groups, they could look to her endorsements from EMILY’s List, Baltimore Women United and Higher Heights, a group that focuses on black women in politics.

“I have a career of standing up for women’s rights — especially expanding women’s opportunities in the work force and fighting against sexual assault and exploitation," Rockeymoore Cummings said in a statement. “In the 21st century, we want someone with those skills representing us in Congress.”

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