NAACP Eyes Cummings

Posted December 3, 2004 at 6:17pm

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) has been approached about taking the helm of the NAACP when current President Kweisi Mfume steps down at the end of the year.

Cummings, who succeeded Mfume in the House in 1996, said he’s happy in Congress but wouldn’t rule out a bid to head the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations. The Maryland lawmaker is nearing the end of his term as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the NAACP job could afford him the opportunity to maintain a high-profile political role, sources in and outside of Congress said.

“It’s certainly something I would have to take a look at,” Cummings said. “It would be a rare opportunity to come along, a rare opportunity to move into a position like that.”

Cummings said it is a critical time in the history of the civil rights organization — a time that requires a strong leader, whomever that may be. The next president, he said, must be politically savvy, possess a strong voice on civil rights and bring a “strong sense of the organization’s history.” The NAACP is based in Baltimore, Cummings’ home town.

Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said that if Cummings is interested in the post, he would be “an excellent candidate” and “a good voice for the NAACP.”

“He’s got tremendous commitment to the cause of civil rights and civil justice, and he has a strong profile as part of his work as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus,” Wynn said.

As the 95-year-old civil rights organization begins its search for a new leader, Cummings is considered the strongest pick among Members of Congress. Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have also been mentioned as possible candidates, although sources said Lewis is not interested.

Regardless of what Cummings does, Mfume’s announcement last week signals the beginning of Maryland’s 2006 election season. And Cummings’ departure for the NAACP would set off a multicandidate scramble in a 7th district special election, similar to the scrum that took place when Cummings, then Speaker Pro Tem of the state House, topped a crowded field in a special election Democratic primary in 1996.

By leaving the NAACP at the beginning of the ’06 cycle, Mfume has vaulted to the front of the pack of potential successors should five-term Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) choose not to run for re-election in two years, and he must also be considered the frontrunner in the 2008 Baltimore mayoral election if that job is vacant. One leading Maryland Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he is “80 percent sure” Mfume would challenge Sarbanes in a Democratic primary if the veteran Senator sought a record-breaking sixth term.

“He’s in an enviable position,” said Maryland state Sen. Lisa Gladden (D). “But the timing of his departure is interesting. It’s at the time when a person who is interested in running for statewide office would start raising money.”

Since leaving Congress, Mfume has maintained his old campaign account, enabling him to contribute to state and local candidates in Maryland while heading the nonpartisan NAACP. The fund had $99,000 in it as of Sept. 30.

But an Mfume political comeback — he spent eight years on the Baltimore City Council and nine in Congress before taking over the NAACP — is by no means guaranteed. The 56-year-old civil rights leader said last week that he is considering a range of options in his quest for “another chance to make a difference,” and is in no hurry to make a decision.

“I think he could transform himself into anything, including a corporate CEO,” said Barry Rascovar, a Baltimore-based communications strategist and columnist for The Gazette newspapers.

Still, Mfume’s departure from the NAACP has to be considered a blow to the handful of other ambitious Democrats who would look long and hard at running for Senate if Sarbanes moves on.

Wynn has all but said he will run for the Senate if Sarbanes retires. Other Democratic House Members, including Cummings, Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, must also be considered potential candidates. Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley (D) is gearing up to run for governor in 2006 but could pivot to join an open-seat Senate race.

“They’re all going to be watching Kweisi now,” said Rascovar, who predicted that Mfume could reasonably expect to get three-quarters of the vote in Baltimore in an open-seat Senate primary. “I hate to use the trite phrase, but he’s become the 800-pound gorilla.”

Sarbanes has given no hint about his plans for 2006. He had just $22,000 in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, but has traditionally not begun raising money until the fifth year of his terms.

“We just had an election a few weeks ago and it’s too early to say anything about 2006,” said Sarbanes’ spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.

Many Democratic leaders believe Sarbanes will run again in two years, when he will be 73 years old.

Sources said that one of the things Cummings is weighing about the NAACP job is whether taking it would hinder his ability to run for the Senate at some point in the future. They also said Cummings would have to give serious thought to sacrificing his place in Congress.

“It would have to be right terms and right deal — everything would have to be right for him to give up seat in Congress,” said a knowledgeable House Democratic staffer. “He’d definitely be interested if it’s the right dynamics.”

Cummings was a key ally to Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) after he secured the Democratic presidential nomination and helped boost his capital with minority voters — prompting many to speculate that the Maryland lawmaker would have had a good shot at a slot in a Democratic administration. With that off the table, many sources say the NAACP job may be just the right opportunity for Cummings.

Cummings stressed that he hasn’t mounted any kind of campaign for the NAACP job. Rather, he said friends, fellow lawmakers and board members have approached him and asked him to consider it — and he said he is “honored and humbled” by their interest.

“The question I would ask is, ‘Does it afford me the opportunity to be the most effective with my efforts, my resources and my time?’” Cummings said.

Arthur Murphy, a Maryland political consultant and former president of the local NAACP chapter in Baltimore, said he doubts that Cummings would leave the House, but added that “everybody and their mother will run” if the Congressman departs.

With all the important action certain to be in the Democratic primary, the potential candidates include: Gladden; state Del. Talmadge Branch; Baltimore City Clerk of Courts Frank Conaway; state Sen. Joan Carter Conway; Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon (aunt of Juan Dixon of the Washington Wizards); state Del. Salima Siler Marriott; state Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel McFadden; Baltimore City Councilman Kieffer Mitchell — a nephew of former Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.), who held the seat before Mfume; former Judge Billy Murphy — Arthur Murphy’s brother; Baltimore City Comptroller Joan Pratt; Baltimore City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; the Rev. Frank Reid III, who was runner-up to Cummings in the 1996 special primary; and former Maryland Public Safety Secretary Stu Simms.

All of the potential candidates who have been mentioned so far are black. But following the latest round of redistricting, the population of the 7th district is now less than 60 percent black and takes in some white suburbs and rural areas — meaning a prominent white candidate could jump into the race with the hope that the black vote is split among several contenders.

Gladden, who said she’d prefer to remain in the state Senate for now, said that Cummings, who is 53, has acted as a mentor to many younger minority politicians in Maryland and is unlikely to try to anoint a successor.

Asked whether he finds it interesting that he shares a similar résumé to Mfume, who also served as chairman of the CBC, Cummings replied: “Nothing happens by accident. I believe there’s already a path set for you and if that path so happens to look similar to someone else’s, so be it.”0