Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House seat in Maryland special election

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BALTIMORE — Democrat Kweisi Mfume won the first election in Maryland since the coronavirus pandemic, prevailing in a mostly vote-by-mail contest to reclaim a Baltimore-area congressional seat he held for 10 years before his late friend Elijah Cummings.

By defeating Republican commentator and nonprofit founder Kimberly Klacik, Mfume, 71, will fill the remainder of Cummings’ term, ending Jan. 3.

He is also on a June primary ballot — along with Klacik and others — for candidates seeking a full, two-year term in the 7th Congressional District.

State elections officials on Tuesday night released the results from ballots received by mail through Monday, with Mfume leading 73% to 27%.

An unknown number of ballots remained outstanding. The state mailed ballots to 482,728 eligible registered voters and reported receiving back 110,524 so far (they must be postmarked by Tuesday). So, while the results the state released Tuesday accounted for 107,740 votes, another 3,788 from mailed-in ballots and in-person voting remained to be counted, along with any other ballots that could still arrive by the deadline of May 8.

But Democrats hold a commanding, 4-1 voter registration advantage in the district. And of all the mailed-in ballots received, more than 74,000 were from registered Democrats. Even if Klacik won the 23,118 GOP voters ballots mailed in so far, along with the 12,500 from voters of other parties, she would not take the lead from Mfume, and there was no reason to believe she would receive enough crossover support for the trend to change.

With Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency and stay-at-home orders in effect, voters were encouraged by elections officials to mail in ballots. However, several voters said Tuesday they came to vote in person —there were three sites — because they were concerned their completed ballots would get lost in the mail.

Signs at the voting centers advised voters to keep 6 feet apart, and mask-wearing campaign volunteers waved signs at voters rather than approach them. Election judges — some considered high risk because of their age — sat behind plastic shields, wearing protective gear.

In Howard County, plastic bags containing a surgical mask, pen and sticker were given to voters as they entered the polling site at the county fairgrounds in West Friendship. Hand sanitizer was available and in use.

At the Martin’s West catering hall off Interstate 695, the Baltimore County polling place, each voter was given their own pen to mark their ballot, rather than circulating pens among many people.

In Baltimore City, judges wore gloves, face shields and masks, while still handing the traditional “I Voted” stickers to voters. The high school’s hallways were marked with tape at 6-foot intervals in case lines formed.

Election workers constantly cleaned voting stations.

“It’s a learning experience. We’re doing the best we can,” said Judy Cranston, an election judge at Martin’s West who has been working elections for more than a decade.

The election — Maryland’s first to be conducted almost entirely by mail — was partly a referendum on Cummings, a Baltimore civil rights icon who had a rare form of cancer. He had held the seat since 1996.

Cummings succeeded Mfume, who held the seat for a decade and was seeking to reclaim it. Mfume, a friend of Cummings who spoke at his funeral, called Cummings’ tenure “excellent” and said he would be “the best successor to him.”

Mfume, a former NAACP leader and Baltimore City Council member, also touted his endorsements from elected officials and faith leaders.

Klacik criticized Cummings’ representation as “horrible.” The founder of a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women enter the workforce, Klacik appeared on Fox News last year to discuss videos she posted on social media showing trash and blight in the district, portions of which she has likened to a developing country. She is a backer of Republican President Donald Trump, who called the district “rat and rodent infested” after the videos appeared.

Baltimore-born and raised, Mfume chronicled his early life in a 1996 autobiography in which he described a misguided young man who quits school, fathers five children out of wedlock and runs with a gang.

The book recounts a street-corner “epiphany” one summer night nearly 50 years ago, which Mfume says began his transformation from an aimless punk in West Baltimore to an influential black leader who led the NAACP for nine years.

Mfume says that on that July evening in 1971, he was in a craps game when he saw his mother — who had died of cancer more than seven years earlier — looking at him, first with sadness, then with love. Mfume, who is Baptist, describes it as a story of redemption and faith.

Born Frizzell Gray, he attended Morgan State University, changed his name and became a local radio personality. He still possesses a rich, disc jockey voice.

Voters elected him to the Baltimore City Council in 1978 and to Congress in 1986.

Mfume said often during this year’s campaign that, if elected, his previous tenure would allow him to regain at least some congressional seniority, helping him move up the ladder toward leadership positions. It is up to House Democratic leaders to decide how much seniority a returning member gets.

Klacik pointed to conflict in Mfume’s tenure as NAACP president from 1996 until 2004. A recent review of records by The Baltimore Sun found Mfume left after the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, several negative performance reviews and a vote by the executive committee of the NAACP’s board not to grant him a new contract.

Mfume declined an interview with The Baltimore Sun about the Bond records, but said he took the organization from debt to a surplus, and received a raise in his final three-year contract in 2001.

“Judge me the way you’ve known me and have always known me,” he said during the campaign.

Wendy Royalty of Ellicott City voted by mail for Mfume. But the ballot of her 18-year-old daughter, Tess Miller, never arrived, meaning the she had to vote in person. The backup option left Royalty satisfied with the process.

“The Board of Elections has done an amazing job switching over (to mail-in voting) so quickly,” Royalty said. “I was a little worried at first, but they’ve done an amazing job.”

Hogan last month ordered the vote-by-mail election for the races originally scheduled for April 28. While he put off the state primaries that had been set for that day to June 2, he kept the 7th District special general election on Tuesday.

Royalty said it’s important for the district to have a representative in Congress. The seat has been vacant since Cummings died in October.

“The governor did the right thing,” she said.

But the process didn’t work out for every voter.

Felicia Woodland, 73, has cast a ballot in every election that she legally could. As a black woman, she said, her family hammered home how important it is to vote.

“It took us so long to be able to,” she said. But she said her ballot for Tuesday’s election never arrived in the mail. So she took two buses to Edmondson Westside High School to try and vote in person. When she went inside, she said election workers told her she had to fill out paperwork to vote. Her carpal tunnel syndrome was acting up too much, so she left without voting.

“May the best person win,” she said, resigned.

Baltimore elections director Armstead Jones said Woodland was likely asked to fill out a provisional ballot.

Maryland will repeat the entire process in June on a much larger scale. Ballots will be mailed to more than 4 million voters statewide for presidential, Baltimore mayoral and 7th Congressional District primaries.


(The Baltimore Sun’s Luke Broadwater, Emily Opilo, Tim Prudente, Talia Richman and Pamela Wood and photographers Jerry Jackson and Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.)


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