The political arena to which Mfume is returning does not resemble what he left behind in 1996, when he surprised colleagues by resigning from Congress, where he was a rising star, to take over a struggling NAACP.
At the time, President Bill Clinton occupied the White House, and Newt Gingrich had just taken over as House speaker. Mfume’s successor representing Maryland’s 7th District was Cummings (D), whose office in the Rayburn House Office Building the returning congressman moved into in early May.
“You can’t script something like this,” Mfume said after winning last month’s special election to complete Cummings’s term in a district encompassing portions of Baltimore City and Howard and Baltimore counties.
Mfume, who was sworn in May 5, is on the ballot again in the June 2 Democratic primary in a field that includes Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the late congressman’s widow, and Maryland State Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City). He defeated both women and more than a dozen other candidates in a special primary in February.
Mfume’s rendition of “Back to the Future” is the latest dramatic turn for a man who spent his early years as a pot-smoking street criminal known as “Pee Wee” before becoming a radio personality, a Baltimore City councilman and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Along the way, he lost a 2006 Senate campaign that was buffeted by allegations of sex discrimination during his tenure at the NAACP.
Like Cummings, who died in October, Mfume, 71, is known for his impassioned oratory, a skill that helped him gain recognition in Congress and maintain influence in Baltimore politics over four decades.
“He has deep ties to institutions,” said State Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City). “In his district, he is a household name.”
As he settles into his congressional encore, Mfume said he is preoccupied with the impact of the coronavirus on the 7th District, which is 54 percent African American, a population that the infection has attacked nationwide in disproportionate numbers.
“All of my attention, all of my energy, and all of my focus in the Congress will be on using the science and data and common sense to help the nation get through this dark hour,” he said during a phone interview.
Many of his constituents have been affected, he said, because they are “the essential employees who are the cashiers, truck drivers and the clerks and people who have to go to work every day.”
That African Americans have been among the most harmed by the pandemic is not surprising, said Mfume, who is a former executive director of the National Medical Association, representing black physicians. He also served on a National Institutes of Health advisory council that studied minority health issues.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to ring the bell on health disparities in our country,” he said. “Pandemics don’t create those disparities. They reveal them.”
Mfume said he has no specific legislation that he plans to pursue “at the moment.” But he said he would push to increase mobile testing for the coronavirus in his district. He also said he would use social media and mass mailings to keep constituents informed about ways to avoid the virus.
“You erase the disparities by educating people,” he said.
Mfume, who spent five terms in Congress, is a well-established figure in Maryland politics. At his swearing-in, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) — the House majority leader and dean of the state’s delegation — described him as an “excellent choice” and a “great intellect.”
Yet the new congressman faces imposing challenges representing Baltimore’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. As a returning member, he won’t have the prominent platform possessed by Cummings, who was chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
“He has his work cut out for him in the aftermath of the pandemic and the nationwide government crisis,” said Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins political science professor. “He’s coming into office at a time when you could hardly think of something else that could go wrong.”
Mfume’s allies contend that he will benefit from his congressional experience, as well as his long-standing relationships with influential members such as Hoyer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She has assigned him to the Small Business Committee, on which he served previously, as well as the Oversight Committee.
“Because he’s a known commodity, there won’t be the speculation about whether he has the skill set, whether he has the political chops to handle being in Congress,” said former congressman Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). “The expectation is that he will step in and be effective doing the nuts and bolts of the job.”
As a young man, Mfume’s political mentor was Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.), whose House seat he won when Mitchell retired. Mfume entered Congress in 1987, when Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) was House Speaker and Ronald Reagan was president.
Asked to compare Reagan, himself a polarizing figure, and President Trump, Mfume said Reagan “had a better gift at convincing people he was not the person they thought he was. Donald Trump, I believe, wants that gift but doesn’t have it.”
As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he chaired from 1993 to 1995, Mfume criticized Clinton for withdrawing his nomination of Lani Guinier, an African American lawyer, for assistant attorney general for civil rights after her controversial writings surfaced.
Mfume also angered Jewish groups when he said the caucus had entered into a “sacred covenant” with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who frequently made statements viewed as anti-Semitic. Mfume later renounced the alliance when Farrakhan refused to repudiate an aide who had described Jews as “blood suckers of the black nation.”
Two years after Republicans won control of the House in 1994, Mfume gave up his seat to lead the NAACP, which was reeling from debt and a scandal that had taken down its previous leader, Benjamin Chavis.
“He was very well regarded,” Wynn said. “It was quite shocking.”
He is reentering a political arena that is far more contentious than the one he left, even within his own party, where a new generation of liberals, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has tangled with Democratic leaders.
At least two liberal groups — Our Revolution Maryland and the Sunrise Movement Baltimore — endorsed Carter during the primary. Evelyn Hammid, a Sunrise Baltimore leader, said the organization supported Carter because she made the Green New Deal — a sweeping proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade — “a centerpiece of her campaign.” The national Sunrise Movement did not make an endorsement in the race.
“We reached out to Rep. Mfume several times asking to take the Green New Deal pledge, but he did not respond,” she said in an emailed statement.
Mfume, who describes himself as a social progressive and a fiscal moderate, said he supports the Green New Deal as a “concept.” “There are things that can and should be tweaked,” he said, declining to specify his concerns.
He expressed no worries about immersing himself in the political fray and said the two relief packages Congress recently passed are evidence that a coalition of support is “not impossible” even if “not always probable.”
On the night of his victory, Mfume told his supporters he would “cut my own brand, I’ll do my own thing” as he invoked Cummings’s name and said he won’t be able to “replace” the congressman who had once replaced him.
“It’s really kind of surreal to think,” Mfume said, “that I’ve lasted this long on this earth to watch history almost repeat itself.”