Kwesi Mfume, 71, is in a tough battle to regain the Maryland congressional seat he held from 1987 to 1996, but he certainly has more than his fair share of competitors. He is one of two dozen Democrats competing to complete the term of late congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.)
Among his competitors is Cummings’ widow, and several other opponents who are decades younger than him. But Mfume is touting his age, political, non-profit, business and life experience as assets. His campaign slogan — “Proven. Tested. Ready on Day One” — reinforces the message.
In the district, Democrats largely outnumber Republicans, so the winner of the Feb. 4 Democratic primary will most likely win the special general election on April 28. The special election is the same day as the primary for the November contest for the full two-year term.
With name recognition, analysts say the short campaign period will certainly prove favorable to Mfume. Mfume can rely on his loyal supporters, many of whom are older. In an election where turnout will definitely matter, Mfume can feel comfortable in the fact that old people show up and vote.
However Mfume has both personal and professional baggage
His personal story is well-known.
Kweisi Mfume was born Frizzell Gray, Mfume was 16 when his mother died of cancer. After her death, he quit school to help support his three younger sisters. He also began hanging out on street corners drinking with friends.
“Before I knew it, I was a teenage parent, not once but twice, three times, four times, five times,” Mfume recalled in U.S. News and World Report.
His life changed on a July night in the late 1960s. He had been drinking with his friends when suddenly he began to feel strange. “People were standing around shooting craps, and something just came over me,” he remember in Business Week.
“I said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ And I walked away.”
Mfume went on to earn his high school equivalency certificate and graduated with honors from Morgan State University. In the summer of 1968, Congressman Parren Mitchell showed up on Mfume’s corner to register voters, engaged Mfume in conversation and, eventually, became his mentor.
In an effort to connect with his African background, Mfume adopted a new name early in the 1970s. His aunt had traveled to Ghana and suggested the name when she returned. Kweisi Mfume (Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-May) is a phrase that translates as “conquering son of kings.”
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.
Part of his baggage includes, as president of the Congressional Black Caucus, encouraging caucus members to vote for the 1994 crime bill, now seen by liberal Democrats as a catalyst for mass incarceration and aggressive policing of minorities.
Left NAACP on Bad Terms
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 Jan. 17 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.”
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 had 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.
Mfume declined to be interviewed by The Sun about the Bond records. He said in a statement: “Sometimes strong-willed leaders have differences of opinion. Julian and I were no different.” He said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001.