Kweisi Mfume pulled ahead of a crowded field of 24 Democratic candidates in the special primary election to fill the late Rep. Elijah Cummings' seat on Tuesday, paving the way for a April general special election win in the deep-blue 7th congressional district.
“Experience matters,” Mfume, 71, said during a Tuesday night victory speech in northeast Baltimore. He earned 43 percent of Democratic votes.
In a fast, packed race, Mfume’s reputation and experience seemed to convince 7th district voters that was the best suited to succeed Elijah Cummings. He previously represented the 7th congressional district from 1987 to 1996. Mfume stepped down to serve as the head of the NAACP. He was replaced by Cummings, who held the seat until he died last fall.
“If you had to have heart surgery next week and you could pick your own heart surgeon, I don't think you’d pick somebody right out of medical school,” Mfume said. “You'd rather go to somebody who has done it over and over again successfully.”
Mfume is also the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a former Baltimore City councilman.
His priorities include lower the cost of prescription drugs, banning assault weapons and preserving Social Security. He supports the Green New Deal and believes the federal government must reaffirm its commitment to enforcing existing environmental laws and more steps to avoid the effects of climate change.
The race was defined by a compressed timeline and packed-to-the-brim Democratic field. Elijah Cummings’ funeral was Oct. 25; Gov. Larry Hogan declared Tuesday’s special primary days later. Candidates had just over three months to sway voters -- and competed with the holiday season and the new year to earn their attention. Mfume’s name recognition and track record helped him climb to the top.
Around 75,000 voters, about 18 percent, of eligible voters cast ballots on Tuesday. There are about 510,000 voters in the 7th congressional district; only the 422,000 registered Democrats and Republicans were eligible to vote in Tuesday’s primary. The district represents just over half of Baltimore City and parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. It is 52 percent black.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 4 to 1, meaning Mfume is highly likely to win again in April's general special election. Republican Kimberly Klacik won her party's primary.
The packed field included Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a PhD-holding public policy consultant and former head of the Maryland State Democratic Party. She wed Elijah Cummings in 2008. Cummings came in second with 17 percent of the vote.
State Senator Jill P. Carter came in third with 16.1 percent of the vote. She represents the 41st legislative district of Baltimore City and has previously worked for the Legal Aid Bureau, the Office of the Public Defender, and the Office of the City Solicitor. Carter is the daughter of Walter P. Carter, a civil rights activist and leader in the Maryland desegregation movement.
Other Democratic candidates also included Harry Spikes, a former Cummings aide, Del. Terri Hill, a politician and physician representing parts of Baltimore and Howard Counties, F. Michael Higginbotham, a University of Baltimore law professor and first-time politico who lent over $500,000 to his own campaign, and Saafir Rabb, an activist.
By the time voters were off to the polls, there was no single frontrunner. There were no major public polls, and while candidates like Rockeymoore Cummings and Higginbotham conducted their own polling, the results weren’t leaked -- meaning campaigns weren’t certain about who was best poised to win Tuesday’s election.
While Tuesday was a big win for Mfume, the special general election for the vacant seat coincides with a regular 2020 primary election for the next term. On April 28, 7th district voters will cast a vote for both the general special election and the regular election, meaning there’s a chance the two races could produce two different winners.
On Tuesday night, Rockeymoore Cummings and Carter both said they aren’t calling it quits. Both will campaign for the regular primary in April; so will Mfume.
“This February 4th election is not the end,” Rockeymoore Cummings said at her campaign watch party at Mondawmin Mall’s TGI Fridays. “It is just the beginning.”
“It’s not over,” Carter said at her own party in Mount Vernon. “I believe we are going to walk together to the halls of Congress.”
The regular general election will be held in November. The winner will serve a full term in the House, from 2021 to 2023.
WYPR’s Mary Rose Madden, John Lee and Rachel Baye contributed to this report.