As President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, Feb. 4, and counted up the reasons he thinks Americans should love him, Kweisi Mfume counted up the ballots in the 7th U.S. Congressional District special primary election.
Were we witnessing the prelude to a political punching match?
Mfume took a major step toward regaining the congressional seat he held more than 20 years ago, winning the Democratic primary over the late Rep. Elijah Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and 22 other candidates.
It’s a victory for Mfume -– and, maybe, for a certain kind of voice in Congress. It’s a voice up from the streets, a voice not afraid to take on entrenched power, a voice of passion and of conscience.
In other words, a voice like Elijah Cummings.
In his 1998 autobiography, “No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream,” (Random House), Mfume wrote of the West Baltimore where he grew up, with its “buildings boarded up, the laundry hanging above row house stoops, pregnant teenage girls, and old folks peeking out from behind drawn window shades.
“For most Americans, these are the images of urban decay. For me and hundreds of thousands of African Americans across the nation, these were and are the symbols of home.”
They’re also the same symbols that remain today, nearly a quarter-century since Mfume wrote those words. They’re the “symbols” that brought Rep. Cummings and President Trump into verbal combat, when Trump called West Baltimore a “rodent-infested mess.”
In all his years in public life, Mfume was never known to duck a fight. But how much fight does he have left in him?
He was a street kid whose father slipped away early and whose mother died, in Mfume’s arms, when Kweisi was a teenager. He took to the streets, got himself into repeated trouble, but made his way to college and, eventually, politics.
He was a pugnacious figure on the Baltimore City Council -– but polished off his edges, learned to get along with such figures as the equally pugnacious Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
When he succeeded the late Parren Mitchell to win the 7th congressional seat, Mfume won such respect from colleagues that he became chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1996, he left Congress to head the NAACP, and took it from political irrelevance and the poorhouse to economic stability. But he left under a cloud of workplace discrimination allegations.
There were many who urged Mfume to run for mayor of Baltimore. It’s a tough, exhausting job, and there was talk that Mfume, at 71, wasn’t interested in such heavy lifting.
Does he still have enough fight in him to take on Donald Trump? Those “symbols” of West Baltimore’s plight remain. Does the fire that once energized Mfume still burn?
If he didn’t have the inclination, to run for mayor of Baltimore, does he still have the energy to take on the president of the United States?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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