Kweisi Mfume took a major step toward reclaiming the Baltimore-area U.S. House seat he held for 10 years, capturing the Democratic nomination to succeed his longtime friend, the powerful Elijah Cummings.
The former NAACP leader, 71, topped a field of 24 Democrats Tuesday to advance to an April 28 special general election to fill the remainder of Cummings’ 7th Congressional District term.
Mfume represented the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County, until stepping down in 1996 to lead the NAACP.
“I want to thank all the many people of the 7th Congressional District. I accept your nomination,” Mfume told an audience of a few hundred cheering supporters at The Forum, a banquet hall in northwest Baltimore. A half-dozen American flags were positioned on the stage where he spoke.
“We’ve got another 10 weeks in front of us and to take this all across the district and to ask people to join on,” he said.
While Mfume invited his Democratic rivals to join his campaign, some of them announced plans to run in the regular primary April 28 for a full, two-year term, including Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and state Sen. Jill P. Carter. Rockeymoore Cummings is Cummings’ widow and the former Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman.
Mfume enjoyed high name recognition, particularly among older voters who remembered him as a congressman and, earlier, a member of Baltimore City Council. That helped him in an 11-week campaign in which most other candidates struggled to get attention.
Mfume was able to raise money for the race — he had more than $200,000 on hand as of Jan. 15 — and he spent much less than his competitors.
He overcame renewed questions about his tenure at the NAACP. He left the national civil rights organization abruptly after an employee threatened a lawsuit over sexual harassment and some board members expressed concerns with his job performance.
He told voters his congressional priorities would include lowering the cost of prescription drugs, improving the Affordable Care Act health care system, and reinstating a federal assault weapons ban.
Rockeymoore Cummings entered her election night party to chants of “Maya! Maya! Maya!” With a big grin, she hugged supporters as she wound her way through a TGI Friday’s restaurant by Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.
In her brief and energetic speech, Rockeymoore Cummings thanked her late husband.
“We fought together for a long time, and he expected me to keep fighting," Rockeymoore Cummings said.
Other Democratic contenders included longtime Cummings staffer Harry Spikes; University of Baltimore law professor F. Michael Higginbotham, who contributed $506,000 to his own campaign; and state Del. Terri L. Hill, a physician from Howard County.
Like Rockeymoore Cummings and Carter, Hill suggested her candidacy would continue into the regularly scheduled congressional primary in April. She said she had performed well against candidates with higher name recognition and media exposure, and "I have the momentum.”
Kimberly Klacik, who runs a nonprofit focused on workforce development for disadvantaged women, won the GOP contest.
Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration advantage in the district, meaning Mfume will hold a huge advantage over Klacik in the special general election April 28.
The state elections board said at 9:45 p.m. that it expected turnout to be about 75,000 voters. That’s about 18% of the district’s 422,000 registered voters, although only registered Democrats and Republicans were allowed to vote in their respective party’s primary.
The April 28 election is expected to have sharply higher turnout than Tuesday’s because it will include a number of contests, including a presidential primary and the municipal races in Baltimore.
Cummings was known for his advocacy on behalf of his hometown of Baltimore and civil rights. He was chairman of one of three House committees that led the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
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In July, Trump sharply criticized Cummings and the 7th District, which the president called “rat and rodent infested.”
State Democrats defended Cummings, and Tuesday’s contest seemed partly a race to see which Democrat could most closely associate themselves with the popular late representative.
Veronica Saunders distributed campaign literature for Mfume outside of Cummings’ former polling place in the Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School in the Madison Park neighborhood.
The 59-year-old Democrat found voters to be cheerful, despite steady rain throughout the morning. Voter turnout is important, especially for those whose ancestors fought for the right, she said.
Saunders said she gravitated to Mfume because of his ability to continue the Cummings legacy.
“He does what he says he’s going to do,” she said. “I think he’s a good candidate for the people.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Wilborn P. Nobles III, Emily Opilo, Kevin Rector, Lillian Reed, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.