Democrats fight for Elijah Cummings’ legacy — and a seat in Congress

Support from black women will be key in next Tuesday’s special election primary

Maryland Democrat Maya Rockeymoore Cummings greets worshippers Sunday before a service at the Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore. She is running in a crowded Democratic primary to succeed her late husband, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, in the 7th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Maryland Democrat Maya Rockeymoore Cummings greets worshippers Sunday before a service at the Zion Baptist Church in Baltimore. She is running in a crowded Democratic primary to succeed her late husband, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, in the 7th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 28, 2020 at 11:55am

BALTIMORE — Two dozen Democrats are running for the nomination in Maryland’s 7th District, but no one looms larger over the race than the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose death last fall prompted the upcoming special election.

What Cummings wanted in a successor — and what people think he would have wanted — have become big factors in this contest, where the two best-known candidates are his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and his friend and predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, who left Congress in 1996 to lead the NAACP.

“My late husband was a beautiful man,” Rockeymoore Cummings said, her voice rising as she addressed the congregation at Zion Baptist Church on Sunday. “And I ask you to continue to pray for me and our family as we continue to walk this path.”

But family in this race is complicated. The late congressman’s daughters are backing one of his former staffers, while at least two of his sisters were at a “Women for Mfume” rally later that day.

“There’s nobody else that I would vote for. Not even my sister-in-law,” said Cheretheria Blount, Cummings’ 70-year-old sister.

“My motto is: A vote for Maya Rockeymoore is not a vote for Elijah,” added Diane Woodson, Cummings’ 63-year-old sister.

But this race may also be a test of how much times have changed, with Rockeymoore Cummings — who is two decades younger than Mfume — striving to be the first woman to hold this seat and the only woman in Maryland’s all-male congressional delegation. Mfume is facing allegations of sexual harassment during his tenure at the NAACP, which he denies. In the two decades since he left Congress, though, similar allegations have derailed other lawmakers’ careers.

An overshadowed race

Next week’s contest, expected to be a low-turnout election, has been overshadowed by the equally crowded April mayoral primary and by national Democrats jockeying to take on President Donald Trump.

Voters in this solidly blue district go to the polls next Tuesday, the day after the Iowa caucuses and the same day Trump is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will likely win the special general election on April 28, which is the same day as the primary for the regular November election.

All eyes are on Mfume and Rockeymoore Cummings, but state Sen. Jill Carter has consolidated some progressive support, including the backing of 2018 gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, while law professor Michael Higginbotham has poured more than $500,000 of his own money into his campaign. Rockeymoore Cummings has earned media attention — she announced her campaign on MSNBC and was on “The View” last week.

A chance to make history

Seated in the second-from-the-front pew in church Sunday morning, Rockeymoore Cummings often had a hand outstretched — either above her in prayer or to the side to embrace a fellow parishioner. The women who packed the service — even those who said they hadn’t made up their minds about whom to support — beamed at her.

MD07-01

Black women are motivated voters, and they’re an influential part of the primary electorate in the 7th District, which includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties. Half of the district’s voters live in the city.

“Black women are the heart and soul, the pumping power, of the Democratic Party. It is time that our party looked like us,” state Del. Robbyn Lewis said at a Monday news conference when Rockeymoore Cummings touted endorsements from EMILY’s List, Baltimore Women United for Action, Higher Heights for America, which supports black female candidates, and local leaders.

Rockeymoore Cummings talks about “shattering the glass ceiling,” but she’s running on more than just making history. Her pitch is twofold: She has congressional and policy experience, and she wants to continue the legacy of her late husband, whom she met on Capitol Hill. She worked on the Ways and Means Committee and was chief of staff to former New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel before starting her own consulting firm.

But among activists and politicos, at least, the significance of electing a woman to this seat has been underscored by a Jan. 17 Baltimore Sun story about Mfume’s departure from the NAACP. The executive committee took a secret vote in 2004 not to renew his contract, according to the Sun’s review of former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond’s papers, now at the University of Virginia. The newspaper unearthed allegations of sexual harassment, including a threat of a lawsuit against Mfume and the NAACP.

“I really don’t like talking ill of a dead person except to say that Julian’s recollection in all this was not correct,” Mfume told CQ Roll Call on Sunday.

“I was a single man who, on the job, dated a single woman for about six months,” he said. “There were, I think, one or two other people who thought, ‘Maybe he should have been dating me.’”

Rockeymoore Cummings doesn’t lean into these allegations explicitly.

“Voters want people who have exhibited good judgment in the past,” she told CQ Roll Call when asked about them.

“I’m standing for women, that I’m not about exploitation, that I’m focused on women’s empowerment and opportunities,” she added.

Two familiar names

Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Democratic candidate for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, arrives to a campaign rally at the Forum in Baltimore, Md., on Sunday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume arrives at a campaign rally at the Forum in Baltimore on Sunday. The Democrat is seeking a comeback in the 7th District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Later that afternoon, hundreds of women crowded a ballroom across town, waving blue pompoms and chanting, “We are women for Mfume!”

The women here weren’t bothered by the sexual harassment allegations against the former congressman, if they even believed them.

“It’s not an issue for me. And I don’t think it’s an issue for women,” said Thelma Daley, the chairwoman of Women for Mfume and national director of Women in the NAACP. “It may be an issue for The Sun paper, OK? But it’s not an issue for us.”

Takiyah Oduntan, 41, of Baltimore, agrees with Rockeymoore Cummings that Maryland needs a woman in Congress. But she remembers Mfume being her congressman before and believes he can help restore Baltimore to a less violent version of its current self.

“I’m all the way for women, but sometimes it’s not a gender thing. It’s a ‘What’s best for the city?’ thing,” she said while waiting for Mfume at Sunday’s rally.

“Experience” was the word these women mentioned over and over again when asked to describe their support for Mfume, who announced the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO once he took the stage.

They didn’t have anything negative to say about Rockeymoore Cummings except, “I don’t really know her.”

After marrying Elijah Cummings in 2008, Rockeymoore Cummings commuted back and forth between Washington, where she had her consulting business, and her adopted city of Baltimore. She only became a Maryland voter in 2014.

“In D.C., I was Dr. Rockeymoore, and here in Baltimore, I was Mrs. Cummings. And nobody cared about the doctor or the Rockeymoore,” she said. “People loved and respected my husband, and they didn’t know a whole lot about me until I became the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.”

She was elected chairwoman in December 2018 after a short-lived gubernatorial campaign that she suspended when her husband was hospitalized.

So how big a part of her candidacy is her last name?

“It’s huge,” she said. “The reason I’m here is because I fell in love with Congressman Elijah Cummings. But I’m staying here and I choose to live here because I love the people.”

But whereas she tells a story of love and legacy, others sense opportunism.

“She’s just piggybacking off of the Cummings name,” said Blount, one of the late congressman’s sisters.

Loading the player...