What does it mean for you now to go back and try to take Cummings’s seat again?
Well, it means a lot. Because he put his heart and soul in it. You know, we were friends for 42 years. His sisters came on board and endorsed my candidacy — and were there election night. In my remarks that night, I’m thanking this one and thanking that one, and I looked out and saw both sisters looking at me with tears in their eyes. And I just kind of pointed to them, acknowledged them, and then I pointed skyward. And I said, “This one is for Elijah.”
None of this was planned, obviously. I mean, in August, Elijah and I were on the phone talking about the next board meeting of Morgan State University. I’m chair; he’s been on the board. And we were laughing and joking, as we normally did, about things that were complicated, like his health. And he was saying, “I just can’t wait to take this damn walker and throw it in the middle of the street and do a moonwalk into my office.” Neither of us knew that the death angel would come as quickly as it did.
So, it's meant, for me, that Elijah's death would not be in vain. That I would try as best I could to maintain what I thought, and he thought, was a level of service to the community that would be unparalleled.
Having decided to go back into public service, into the spotlight, you’ve had to deal with questions from when you left the NAACP — allegations of sexual harassment and nepotism. How have you answered those questions, and is the scrutiny what you expected?
It’s kind of hard to respond, except to keep saying over and over and over again what the truth is as you recall it. And I’ve been consistent with that for 15 years. I was a single man. I dated a single woman on the job for about six months. It was not the proper or fitting thing to do. We ended the dating relationship then. There was someone else who apparently felt that they should have received an increase or a promotion and thought, in their own way: Oh, the only way that’s going to happen is if I date him. This is my conjecture here. But, you know, just the mention or the taint of it puts someone on the defensive. Probably for the rest of your life.
You left Congress to head up the NAACP, saying you felt you could do more for civil rights in that position. Does it feel like Congress is the place that that work needs to happen now, given the environment we’re in?
It does for me. Because the vitriol and the attacks that are being leveled at people because they're different has just gone through the roof. It's almost like the zombies have been given a new license to come back to life and to discriminate based on your sex, age, sexual preference, surname, Zip code, skin color. It's unbelievable. The harshness of the dialogue that is repeated now as if it's acceptable dialogue really concerns me. If we're not careful, I think that that kind of thinking then gets passed along to children in the households of the people who feel that way. And we could easily grow a whole new generation of people who believe bigotry is okay.
Do you have a sense that Congress is going to be a different environment than when you left?
There seems to be a scorched-earth mentality. "It's my way or no way." So you have to learn to navigate it a little differently than when I left Congress. You can call me crazy, but I just don't know how you govern, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, if you don't find a way to bring people who may be diametrically opposed to an understanding. So that means you have to listen to me. And I have to listen to you. And then, somewhere in the middle, there's this thread of similarity. And [from] the thread of similarity you've got to find a way.
Of course, Representative Cummings, as head of the House Oversight Committee, was challenging the power of the executive branch when he passed. Do you feel any special responsibility to carry on his work to hold the executive branch accountable?
Absolutely. I hold sacred the underpinnings of our democracy. The fact that we have three branches of government that are all co-equal — which is why when there’s one branch trying to take implied powers, I think there’s got to be an equal and opposite response that says, “No.”
I don't want to speak for Elijah, but the only reason I think he and others railed against the executive is when the executive goes beyond what is constitutionally mandated. The constitution has real powers that are assigned to each of the three branches, and then they have implied powers. I think Donald Trump has pushed to take implied powers and to make them direct. And when the legislative branch feels that there is this encroachment, it has to respond and to react — and that's healthy for our country.
For his work, seemingly, Cummings incurred the wrath of the president, who then said some pretty disparaging things about his — and your — community.
Well, I think those comments are beneath the dignity of the office. So I think the president overstepped his boundaries by doing that. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re living at Mar-a-Lago or in Baltimore, you are citizens of the United States of America and ought to be afforded every courtesy, right, privilege and, to the extent possible, respect that other citizens get. Now Elijah probably was nicer than I would have been in that situation. But he was going to stay on the high road and continue to do his work, which I appreciated and supported.
How does one handle that?
Elijah did the right thing by inviting the president to the area that he disparaged so he can see it firsthand. The president didn’t come. I think you just got to call it out.
While the district is diverse, some neighborhoods do have very real challenges, with high levels of poverty and gun violence. What do you say to critics who say, “Well, you already ran that district for 10 years, so you’ve been a part of that and things haven’t changed as much as you’d have wanted”?
The one way to get out of a hole is the same way you got in, and that’s one shovel at a time. Rather than blame any one person or institution, we’ve got to find a way to lift everybody. And lifting everybody means being part of the solution and not part of the criticism. This is a difficult situation, and it requires all hands on deck.
Do you feel a particular urgency to try to figure out how to combat some of those seemingly intractable issues?
Absolutely, it is the most heightened sense of urgency I have ever felt in my life. And that is why I have fought so hard to win this primary and then to, after that, win the general election so that I can go in and add my weight to those persons that are trying to make a real difference through the Congress. And to add my weight to those persons on the ground here in Baltimore, every day, providing services, intervening with young people, and doing whatever they can.
Somebody asked me today, if you are lucky and fortunate enough to win these next two elections and go back into your congressional office, what would it be like? I said, clearly it would be surreal. I could have never written this script, in a million years, never imagined it. But I don’t allow myself to think about that right now. I’m in total campaign mode.
I want to serve again. It’s really that simple.
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book is “Activist: Portraits of Courage.”