The first time Kweisi Mfume was elected to represent Maryland’s seventh congressional district, he was 38 years old. Now 71, he says he wants to continue the work of his one-time successor, Congressman Elijah Cummings, whose death last month left the seat vacant.
“I’ve got to find a way to make sure that all he and others fought for is not lost, tossed to the side or forgotten,” he said Monday during an event launching his campaign at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture.
Mfume first represented the district from 1987 until 1996, when he resigned to lead the NAACP.
Surrounded by family and longtime friends during Monday’s event, Mfume spoke about growing up in “abject poverty” in a segregated Baltimore before eventually finding his way to politics. His first stint in politics involved passing out bumper stickers supporting Hubert Humphrey, he said.
If reelected to Congress, Mfume said he would continue to fight for racial and economic equality and stand up to President Donald Trump.
“In this era of smaller vision, rampant apathy and celebrated mediocrity, we desperately need men and women to speak up and stand up for that which is right and to speak up and fight back against that which is wrong,” he said.
Civil Rights leader Larry Gibson said he “begged” Mfume to run for the seat after Cummings died.
He praised Mfume for his work at the NAACP, which Mfume led from 1996 until 2004.
“The NAACP was embroiled in scandal, wracked with internal turmoil, and on the bring of bankruptcy, with more than $3 million in debt,” Gibson said.
By the time Mfume left, he had stabilized the programming and eradicated the debt, he said.
But Mfume’s leadership at the NAACP is also colored by unconfirmed allegations of sexual harassment. Mfume is accused of giving promotions and raises to sexual partners while passing over women who rejected his advances.
He has acknowledged having a relationship with an NAACP staff member during his time there.
“I myself, as a single man, dated a single woman who happened to be on the job,” he said Monday. “There was nothing mean about that, there was nothing vile about that, and there was nothing illegal about it. But because we worked together, I shouldn’t have done it.”
He noted that despite the other allegations, he was still backed by the National Organization for Women when he ran for Senate in 2006, and that he won 40% of the vote in the race.
(He lost that race to now-Sen. Ben Cardin.)
“I believe voters know the truth from the trick, that voters know what’s in their best interest, that voters believe in their heart of hearts what they want to believe,” Mfume said.
Others vying for the seat include Baltimore state Del. Talmadge Branch, a Democrat, and Republican Liz Matory, who has lost two previous congressional races.