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Baltimore’s Kweisi Mfume wins U.S. House race in special election, returns to seat he held before taking over NAACP

Kweisi Mfume wins Maryland’s 7th Congressional District seat long held by the late Elijah Cummings and previously held by Mfume.

Democrat Kweisi Mfume won the first election in Maryland since the coronavirus pandemic, prevailing in a mostly vote-by-mail contest to reclaim a Baltimore-area congressional seat he held for 10 years before he left to head the NAACP.

By defeating Republican commentator and nonprofit founder Kimberly Klacik, Mfume, 71, will fill the remainder of the term of his late friend Elijah Cummings. It ends Jan. 3.

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He is also on a June primary ballot — along with Klacik and others — for candidates seeking a full, two-year term in the 7th Congressional District.

Flanked by American flags at his campaign headquarters in Baltimore, Mfume vowed Tuesday night to make his priority in Congress helping people sickened by the coronavirus and hurt by the economic impact of restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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To the families of coronavirus victims, Mfume said, “I want all of you to know that from Day 1, all of my attention, all of my energy, and all of my focus in the U.S. Congress will be about using science, data and common sense to get through this dark hour in our nation’s history.”

He asked for voters’ support again in June and said Maryland was “showing the nation how, during a worldwide pandemic, to conduct a fair and efficient election using mail-in ballots. It’s not yet a perfect process. But in a national emergency, it is a necessary one.”

State elections officials on Tuesday night released the results from ballots received by mail through Monday in the special general election, with Mfume leading 73% to 27%.

While an unknown number of ballots remained outstanding, Democrats hold a 4-1 voter registration advantage — it is one of the most Democratic districts in the state — and Klacik was not attracting enough crossover support to keep pace.

Klacik tweeted Tuesday night that she would continue to await the final results, but called the election “that one time when hard work didn’t pay off. Perhaps one day District 7 will want a change.”

The health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic gave Tuesday’s balloting a look and feel like no Maryland election before it.

With Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency and stay-at-home orders in effect, voters were encouraged by elections officials to mail in ballots. However, several voters said Tuesday that they came to vote in person — there were three sites — because they were concerned their completed ballots would get lost in the mail.

Signs at the voting centers advised voters to keep 6 feet apart, and mask-wearing campaign volunteers waved signs rather than approach voters. Election judges — some considered high risk because of their age — sat behind plastic shields, wearing protective gear.

In Howard County, plastic bags containing a surgical mask, pen and sticker were given to voters as they entered the polling site at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship. Hand sanitizer was available and in use.

At the Martin’s West catering hall off Interstate 695, the Baltimore County polling place, each voter was given his own pen to mark his ballot, rather than circulating pens among many people.

In Baltimore City, judges wore gloves, face shields and masks, while still handing the traditional “I Voted” stickers to voters. The high school’s hallways were marked with tape at 6-foot intervals in case lines formed.

Election workers constantly cleaned voting stations.

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“It’s a learning experience. We’re doing the best we can,” said Judy Cranston, an election judge at Martin’s West who has been working elections for more than a decade.

The election — Maryland’s first to be conducted almost entirely by mail — was partly a referendum on Cummings, a Baltimore civil rights icon who had a rare form of cancer. He had held the seat since 1996.

Cummings succeeded Mfume, who held the seat for a decade and was seeking to reclaim it. Mfume, a friend of Cummings who spoke at his funeral, called Cummings’ tenure “excellent” and said he would be “the best successor to him.”

Mfume, a former Baltimore City Council member, also touted his endorsements from elected officials and faith leaders.

Klacik criticized Cummings’ representation as “horrible.” The founder of a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women enter the workforce, Klacik appeared on Fox News last year to discuss videos she posted on social media showing trash and blight in the district, portions of which she has likened to a developing country. She is a backer of Republican President Donald Trump, who called the district “rat and rodent infested” after the videos appeared.

Klacik would have needed significant Democratic support to win. The state mailed ballots to 482,728 eligible registered voters and reported receiving back 110,524 so far (they must be postmarked by Tuesday). While the results the state released Tuesday accounted for 107,740 votes, an additional 3,788 from mailed-in ballots and in-person voting remained to be counted, along with any other ballots that could still arrive by the deadline of May 8.

Of the mailed-in ballots received, more than 74,000 were from registered Democrats. Even if Klacik won the 23,118 GOP voters’ ballots mailed in so far, along with the 12,500 from unaffiliated voters and those registered to third parties, she would not have taken the lead from Mfume, and there was no reason to believe she would receive enough crossover support for the trend to change.

Political reporter Emily Opilo previews the special election for Rep. Cummings' seat which is being held Tuesday, April 28, mostly by mail-in ballots.

The setting for Mfume’s remarks Tuesday bore a stark contrast to his victory party in February, when he handily clinched the Democratic nomination. Gone was the throng of supporters who happily danced and dined long after his speech.

Mfume was joined at the podium Tuesday by his wife, Tiffany, and youngest son, Christopher. The only audience was a dozen or so mask-wearing journalists, each assigned a chair 6 feet from the next.

“Team Maryland is proud to welcome back Congressman Kweisi Mfume,” Democrat Ben Cardin, Maryland’s senior U.S. senator, said in a statement Tuesday night. Fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen also sent a congratulatory statement.

Baltimore-born and raised, Mfume 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” one summer night nearly 50 years ago, which Mfume says began his transformation from an aimless punk in West Baltimore to an influential black leader who led the NAACP for nine years.

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Mfume says that on that July evening in 1971, he was in a craps game when he saw his mother — who had died of cancer more than seven years earlier — looking at him, first with sadness, then with love. Mfume, who is Baptist, describes it as a story of redemption and faith.

Born Frizzell Gray, he attended Morgan State University, changed his name and became a local radio personality. He still possesses a rich, disc jockey voice.

Voters elected him to the Baltimore City Council in 1978 and to Congress in 1986.

Mfume said often during this year’s campaign that, if elected, his previous tenure would allow him to regain at least some congressional seniority, helping him move up the ladder toward leadership positions. It is up to House Democratic leaders to decide how much seniority a returning member gets.

Klacik pointed to conflict in Mfume’s tenure as NAACP president from 1996 until 2004. A recent review of records by The Baltimore Sun found Mfume left after the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, several negative performance reviews and a vote by the executive committee of the NAACP’s board not to grant him a new contract.

Mfume declined an interview with The Sun about the Bond records, but said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001.

“Judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me,” he said during the campaign.

Wendy Royalty of Ellicott City voted by mail for Mfume. But the ballot of her 18-year-old daughter, Tess Miller, never arrived in the mail, meaning she had to vote in person. The backup option left Royalty satisfied with the process.

“The Board of Elections has done an amazing job switching over [to mail-in voting] so quickly,” Royalty said. “I was a little worried at first, but they’ve done an amazing job.”

Hogan last month ordered the vote-by-mail election for the races originally scheduled for April 28. While he put off the state primaries that had been set for that day to June 2, he kept the 7th District special general election on Tuesday.

Royalty said it’s important for the district to have a representative in Congress. The seat has been vacant since Cummings died in October.

“The governor did the right thing,” she said.

Maryland will repeat the entire process in June on a much larger scale. Ballots will be mailed to more than 4 million voters statewide for the presidential and Baltimore mayoral primaries, as well as for the state’s eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Tim Prudente, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood and photographers Jerry Jackson and Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.

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