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Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume is navigating the rarest of congressional second acts

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume was 38 when first elected to the House in 1986, joining the same year as fellow Democrats like the late civil rights icon John Lewis, current Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin and Nancy Pelosi, the future Speaker of the House.

Ronald Reagan was president, the Orioles were just a few years removed from a World Series title, and a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar.

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Thirty-five years later, the Democratic former City Council member, now 72, is the answer to a trivia question: Who had the longest gap in congressional history between stints representing the same district?

“I thought I’d found a way to get into the Guinness book [of records],” joked Mfume, who left Congress after five terms in 1996 to become president of the NAACP, never imagining he would return nearly a quarter century later following the death of his close friend, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings. Mfume won a special election early last year to replace Cummings before securing a two-year term in November.

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As he navigates a rare second act in Congress, Mfume’s experience makes him distinct among the 64 recently elected members serving their first full terms.

“There’s a part of me that’s always belonged to this place,” Mfume said last year after being sworn in by Pelosi, the California Democrat and Baltimore native.

His face is more lined now, but he still possesses the same distinctive mustache and rich, disc-jockey voice of a man who was once a Baltimore radio personality.

In an institution built on relationships, Mfume regards such influential House veterans as Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (in his 21st term) and California Democrat Maxine Waters (16th term) as his true peers. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, reintroduced Mfume in a floor speech last year, calling him both “the House’s newest member” and “a veteran of this body.”

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Mfume “has got a lot of friends, and I’m glad to be one of them,” said Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who entered the House with Mfume in January 1987 and is in his 18th term. “He continues to exert plenty of influence.”

Of course, Upton said, there are also “a lot of folks he doesn’t know. He had a gap of 24 years.”

Only nine House members remain from Mfume’s first term, according to congressional records. They include Pelosi, 81, who has been in Congress for 34 years; Hoyer, 82; and House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, 74, an Oregon Democrat.

When Mfume arrived back at the Capitol last year, Alaska’s Don Young, 88 — the chamber’s most senior member (elected in 1973) — was the first Republican to greet him.

“Hey, you made it back,” Mfume quoted Young as saying.

“Guess what?” Young continued. “I never left.”

“I know,” Mfume replied.

Only two House members — Minnesota’s Rick Nolan a decade ago and Maryland’s Philip Francis Thomas in the 19th century — have left for longer periods than Mfume before returning, but neither came back to the same congressional seat.

Unlike the Senate, the House doesn’t formally rank all of its members according to seniority. But while its system is not as regimented, it does consider length of service in making committee assignments and deciding who gets the most spacious offices or those with the best views.

As is customary for returning members, House leaders credited Mfume for his previous tenure. That meant that, instead of being near the back of the line, he got to bypass about two-thirds of his colleagues on the “terms of service” list, according to congressional records.

Instead of being jammed into a tiny office with his staff — the equivalent of a freshman dorm in college — he was provided a roomy suite in the desirable Rayburn Office Building overlooking a courtyard surrounded by crepe myrtle trees.

More important, Mfume was given deference on his choice of committees, and became a subcommittee chairman earlier this year — a rarity for new members. He is vice chair of the Small Business Committee; the subcommittee he oversees is designed to help small businesses with federal contracts.

Mfume said his priorities include helping Baltimoreans and others weather the health and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He has particularly sought to assist minority-led businesses, not only in navigating the COVID crisis but also in helping them access capital and contracts during non-pandemic times.

In 1988, a young Mfume spoke on the House floor to promote his bill expanding the Minority Business Development Agency and protecting it from proposed elimination by Republicans.

“The need to devote federal resources to assist minority businesses in overcoming economic disadvantages is no less apparent today” than when the agency was created by executive order in 1969, he said at the time.

Mfume repeatedly failed to get his measure passed during his initial House tenure. But 33 years later, he got closure when Cardin inserted language similar to Mfume’s bill into legislation passed Aug. 10 by the Senate to improve roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The package still must be considered by the House.

“I think he [Cardin] remembered how much that meant to me,” Mfume said. “Every now and then a door will open and present itself.”

Mfume was speaking about the bill, but he also could have been talking about his opportunity to return to Washington last year.

Mfume, who previously chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, was named NAACP president in 1996 and stayed until 2004. When Cummings died of a rare form of cancer in October 2019, Mfume faced “a very difficult decision” on whether to run, his wife, Tiffany Mfume, said during the campaign.

“We’re doing really well in our lives. We’re really enjoying our families and the blessings that we have,” she said.

The congressman said he felt a calling, not only to succeed his longtime friend but to rejoin the political fray.

“All my life people would ask me what is the best job you ever had, or what did you really like doing? The best opportunity I ever had was to be a member of Congress,” Mfume said. “It’s different now, don’t get me wrong.”

In his initial House stint, Mfume said Democratic former speaker Tip O’Neill or other House leaders would sit down over a beer with their GOP colleagues “bust a few heads and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to get this passed for the good of the nation.’ "

In the savage partisanship of today, Mfume said, there is far less informal dialogue across the aisle. He said members may have been surprised to see him hugging a Republican — Upton — when he arrived back on the floor last year. Mfume said he had bonded with Upton in part because the Michigan lawmaker’s wife is from Baltimore.

“It was good to see Fred when I got back there. We both embraced each other on the floor,” Mfume said. “I know people from my side and on the other side are probably saying, ‘OK what gives here?’ But that’s how we feel about each other.”

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Mfume won November’s election easily over conservative commentator Kimberly Klacik, who raised a whopping $8.3 million and hasn’t ruled out running again next year.

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“We are exploring our options,” Klacik said in a text message. “Congressman Mfume sold us on the idea that he was going to ‘hit the ground running,’ which was false.

“He hit the ground like any first year Congressman.”

Mfume, who lives in Catonsville and has a condominium in Baltimore, was aided in the election by being well known in the 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.

Baltimore-born and raised, he chronicled his early life in a 1996 autobiography in which he described 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” 50 years ago in which his late mother appeared and looked at him, first with sadness, then with love.

Mfume, who is Baptist, describes his life as a story of redemption and faith.

He said he ‘would never, ever in 1 million years have imagined” he would serve in Congress not once, but twice.

“It’s really a miracle is the only way I can describe it,” he said.

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