He is one of two dozen Democrats competing to serve out the remaining term of the late congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who died in October. Several of his opponents in the Feb. 4 primary, including Cummings’s widow, are decades younger, and some of their aides have quietly wondered whether it’s time for a new generation in Washington.
But Mfume is touting his political longevity as an asset that means he has the experience and gravitas to advocate on Capitol Hill for a struggling city. His campaign slogan — “Proven. Tested. Ready on Day One” — reinforces the message. And he touts his place in the lineage of accomplished black men who have held this congressional seat.
In a district where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, the primary winner will almost certainly win the special general election on April 28, the same day as the primary for the November contest for a full two-year term.
Analysts say the short campaign could bode well for Mfume. With candidates focused on rallying their bases, rather than spending money to persuade new supporters, he can rely on older voters who know his name, compelling personal story and reputation as an elder statesman and native son of Baltimore.
“Turnout is key,” said Clarence Mitchell IV, host of the C4 show on radio station WBAL and the great-nephew of Parren Mitchell, an Mfume mentor who was Maryland’s first African American member of Congress. “Older people vote. They show up rain, sleet and snow.”
But Mfume also faces potential stumbling blocks.
While president of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) a generation ago, he whipped votes for the 1994 crime bill, now seen by liberal Democrats as a catalyst for mass incarceration and aggressive policing of minorities. NAACP leaders were dissatisfied with aspects of his performance when he left the organization, and allegations that he fostered a discriminatory workplace environment there could face new scrutiny in the #MeToo era.
The geography of the 7th Congressional District has changed, too.
Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in Maryland, noted that congressional districts have been redrawn twice since Mfume left office. The core of the district is still West Baltimore, but its boundaries reach to far western Howard County and northern Baltimore County, picking up more non-African American voters.
“The gravitas that Kweisi brings to the race exceeds all others, even some who are very well-known in the district, but he can’t ride on that,” Morrill said. “He has to remind people of those stories and the relevance to today.”
A turning point
On a chilly Sunday in December, Mfume visited two Baltimore churches that embraced him and his journey from abject poverty into a life of public service.
At Empowerment Temple, the Rev. George J. Barnes III prayed for God to give Mfume “a special dispensation of strength” during the congressional campaign.
At Set the Captives Free, Mfume teared up when Pastor Karen Stanley Bethea ministered to a young man, reminding Mfume of a time when a younger version of himself was badly in need of spiritual counsel.
Mfume’s story has become his calling card throughout 40 years in public life.
The same night his mother died in his arms at age 16, he learned the true identity of his biological father. He dropped out of high school and made bad choices, fathering five sons out of wedlock before he turned 23. Back then, he says, he would watch “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” and wonder why his life looked so different.
“I just got angry like a lot of black men today,” he said in an interview. “Before I knew it, I was running with the gangs in the neighborhood.”
The turning point came, he says, while shooting craps in front of a West Baltimore liquor store. He saw a vision of his mother’s face and realized he had abandoned the values she taught him.
In the summer of 1968, Parren Mitchell showed up on Mfume’s corner to register voters, engaged Mfume in conversation and, eventually, became his mentor.
Before long, Mfume was canvassing for presidential hopeful Hubert Humphrey. He extricated himself from the gang, earned his high school equivalency certificate and graduated with honors from Morgan State University.
By then he had adopted a new name to go with his new life. A relative returned home from Africa with words meaning “conquering son of kings.” Mfume, born Frizzell Gray, became “Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-May.”
He soon ran for Baltimore City Council, and won by three votes.
Mfume said Parren Mitchell called him in 1986 to say he was retiring from Congress, and all but ordered him to run for the seat. Almost a decade later, Mfume said, when he decided to leave Congress to head the NAACP, he called Cummings to pay the favor forward.
Mfume says he would continue Cummings’s push for criminal justice reform if elected. But he defended his 1994 vote for the crime bill, noting that most of the CBC, as well as then-Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), both 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, also voted “yes.”
“I think you have to make the vote of your conscience at the time,” Mfume said.
Life after Congress
Mfume led the NAACP from 1996 to November 2004, stepping down shortly before he launched a bid for U.S. Senate. He was widely credited with rebuilding the organization after years of struggle.
But the Baltimore Sun reported Friday that the executive committee took a vote of no confidence in Mfume shortly before his departure. According to a document written by then-Chairman Julian Bond, which is part of Bond’s personal and professional papers archived at the University of Virginia, Mfume’s performance was responsible for “constant staff turnovers, falling revenue, falling memberships, three consecutive negative performance appraisals, highly questionable hiring and promotion decisions, creation of new staff positions with no job descriptions, and personal behavior which placed each of us at legal and financial risk.”
Mfume declined to answer questions from the Sun about the document.
Bond, who died in 2015, had praised Mfume when he left the NAACP, saying he had erased a $3.2 million debt and created a budget surplus. Within three months of his departure, however, the Sun reported that the organization used reserves to cover a $4.7 million shortfall and asked 12 employees to take pay cuts.
Nearly 15 years later, Mfume said he could not explain what happened.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” he said. “If there was [a shortfall] afterwards, I really can’t speak to what happened.”
A few months after Mfume’s departure from the NAACP, The Washington Post reported the results of an investigation commissioned by the organization into a different matter: An outside attorney concluded that an employee alleging workplace discrimination could have a credible case, based on evidence that several women believed to be romantically involved with Mfume or one of his sons advanced faster, with higher pay, than other staffers.
Mfume, who was divorced at the time, acknowledged dating one employee, which he called “a boneheaded thing to do.” He denied giving anyone preferential treatment or creating a hostile work environment.
Gary Bledsoe, a longtime NAACP board member and lawyer from Austin, said Mfume shepherded the civil rights group through a financially difficult time. But Bledsoe said he considers the allegations of workplace discrimination to be serious.
“It’s never a good idea for people in supervisory positions to get involved with people in the same organization,” he said.
Mfume said the revelations derailed his Senate campaign, drying up fundraising and endorsements.
After he lost the Democratic primary to now-Sen. Ben Cardin, Mfume traveled the country speaking about civil rights, health care and, later, academic and legal issues, he said. He addressed colleges and universities, medical and bar associations and even the CIA, earning from $1,000 to $15,000 per appearance.
He had served on the board at Morgan State since 1989 and in 2012 took over as chairman, a position he still holds. During his tenure, MSU has increased enrollment by 7 percent, added 11 programs and kept second-year retention rates above 70 percent, the university confirmed.
After more than a decade on the board of trustees at Johns Hopkins University, Mfume joined the board of Research America, which advocates for medical research. He now serves as vice chairman.
'Up to the voters'
As Mfume descended the stairs at a pre-Christmas buffet hosted by 100 Black Men of Maryland, a man in a suit called out his name. Mfume is a longtime supporter of the organization, which focuses on helping African American young people succeed.
He entered the ballroom, gave thumbs-up to a table of seniors and stopped to talk to a supporter who said she would work to get him elected.
Then he headed for the dance floor, shimmying in the middle of a circle of men and women under a mirrored ceiling. A broad grin on his face, Mfume posed for selfies and caught up with a classmate from his college days, Brenda Sykes, who said she “knew him when he was Frizzell!”
Asked whether he’d ever considered stepping away from politics to let a new generation vie for the seat, Mfume made clear he had not and had no intention of doing so.
He said he fought for every success, and he expects his younger opponents to do the same.
“Anybody that thinks that they can serve, they ought to try,” he said. “And it’s up to the voters.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.