Kweisi Mfume was trying not to get ahead of himself.
On Tuesday, Mfume secured a win in a special Democratic primary election that opens the door for him to finish out the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ term in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. He’s been returning calls for press requests ever since. I finally got ahold of him on Thursday afternoon to ask him what he plans to do if elected.
He sounded a bit tired, but happy to chat. “My concentration though is really on winning a double election on the 28th of April,” he said. “And, if that happens, there are a number of things that immediately come to mind for me.”
The job would, in one obvious respect, be a familiar one to Mfume. Before the 7th District seat was held by Cummings—who became a face of the city and of the national Democratic Party as chair of the oversight committee—it was Mfume’s for a decade, from 1987 to 1996. But to reclaim it now, at the age of 71, he has to pass over a few more electoral hurdles. On April 28, he will simultaneously be on the ballot in a special election to complete Cummings’ term and in the regular Democratic primary, to secure the nomination for the November general election. At least two of the competitors he defeated in the special primary—including Rep. Cummings’s widow, Maya Rockeymore Cummings, former chairwoman of the state Democratic Party—will be challenging him again in the regular primary.
On the far side of that, if he successfully returns to Congress, Mfume said he wants to institute an absolute federal ban on assault rifles ban, require more psychological testing for people attempting to purchase a firearm, protect the SNAP program, expand Medicaid coverage along with Medicare, and protect pensions from being undermined by corporations. He’s also interested in safeguarding communities against the ills of climate change and lessening healthcare disparities—tragedies that disproportionately harm people of color.
Protecting the overall health of Americans is of the essence, Mfume said, “otherwise we’ll continue to see life expectancy rates in some communities nosedive.”
“You saw what happened in Flint, Michigan. That could happen anywhere in America,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a Black community, a white community, a Latino community. It’s just going to happen in a community where people are not paying attention to what’s happening environmentally.”
In addition to environmental injustices, comorbidities also exist disparately within Black, brown and low-income communities. In such instances, residents are likely to suffer from two or more adverse health issues simultaneously such as high blood pressure and kidney disease, or heart disease and thyroid problems.
“Every time we have the opportunity to decrease the amount of exposure that people have to bad environmental agents—whether they’re carcinogens from manufacturing plants or carbon emissions coming out of an automobile—we ought to do that,” he said.
Mfume left Congress last time to become president and CEO of the NAACP. When Mfume departed from the organization in 2004, he said it was so he could dedicate more time to his family. But an investigation by The Baltimore Sun revealed he stepped down following threats from an employee to sue over sexual harassment, a few negative performance reviews, and a vote by the board to not renew his contract.
When asked about the allegations, a campaign spokesperson pointed Slate to the statement given to the Sun in January: “It’s curious that someone would push this story out to voters 18 days before the election. Sometimes strong-willed leaders have differences of opinion, [then-chairman of the NAACP] Julian [Bond] and I were no different.”
“The people in the community know me, and I know them,” added Mfume in his statement. “They know what I am fighting for in this campaign and what I will fight for in Congress.”
On Tuesday, Mfume beat out 23 other Democratic candidates and received 43 percent of the vote, according to the state Board of Elections. Maryland’s 7th Congressional District is deeply blue, and in the special election, Mfume is expected to easily best Kimberly Klacik, who won the Republican nomination. Last July, Klacik posted a video of trash in West Baltimore on Twitter, which was part of what inspired President Trump to call Cummings a “brutal bully” who failed to “clean up” his “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” of a district.
Voters who spoke with other media outlets saw Mfume as someone who shared Cummings’ acumen, someone who would defend Baltimore and the constituents’ interests, another lawmaker who would maneuver as “a shepherd who smells like the sheep.” Mfume and Cummings were friends for 42 years, up until the latter’s death in October. They cut their teeth in the community working through political organizations. Mfume recalled asking Cummings to run for his seat once he decided to leave Congress for the NAACP.
“The circle has come back to where it began,” he said, “with me now vying to continue the legacy of Elijah Cummings.”