Kweisi Mfume wants to return to Congress representing Maryland’s 7th District. He discusses the 2020 elections, the Democratic Party, how governments should respond to COVID-19, and the fifth anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again. Now, Kweisi Mfume is running for his old congressional seat. A seat he held for five terms and then spent nine years at the helm of the NAACP. Elijah Cummings passed away still working hours before he took his last breath. Kweisi Mfume announced, along with others, his intentions are to regain his old seat.
On June 2nd and in April, they will face two elections. One the general election to replace Cummings until January 2021 and the other to see who will run for the 7th congressional district seat in November. It’s all very confusing. That’s the way it’s all working. Kweisi Mfume, welcome. Good to have you with us.
Kweisi Mfume: Thank you very much, Marc. Thanks for the opportunity.
Marc Steiner: Always good to see you. So let’s just begin with this moment that we find ourselves in. You were running this campaign, everybody’s going door-to-door and you’re hit with the coronavirus on top of being hit with Donald Trump. Talk a bit about that. I’m wondering what this coronavirus, politically, has meant to you, and personally.
Kweisi Mfume: I guess, in order to talk about the coronavirus, I’ve got to talk about what preceded it for me here. As you know, better than most people, Elijah and I were friends for 42 years. We came up together, we cut our teeth together, we learned politics together. I served in that seat, as you said, for 10 years and on the day that I was getting ready to step down, I called Elijah and asked him if he would run. He did. A little reluctantly, but he did. He got elected and then gave us 23 wonderful years of service.
When he and I were talking in late August of last year and he was kidding about going back into Congress, he said, “I’m going back to my office in October. I’ll be fine then. I’m going to throw this damn walker away, grab my gavel and immediately call the committee to order. I said, “Well Elijah, look. We’re around the same age. Don’t throw that walker too far away. I might need it one day.” We were kidding like that in August, neither of us knowing that by October the death angel would visit Elijah and take him away.
A few weeks after his funeral… I had an opportunity to speak there at his request. A few weeks after that, at the urging of law professor Larry Gibson and some others, I decided that I would go ahead and try to run for this seat. It’s been six and a half months or so and it’s been a rough-and-tumble campaign. The interesting thing is that they’re more elections and this year then you can shake a stick at. There was the February 4th election in which I was able to win and become the Democratic nominee.
There’s the April 28th election, which is underway now and we’re asking people to please mail their ballots back in right away. Time is running out. Then two weeks after April 28th, around May 15th, new ballots will go onto the mail for the presidential primary and people will get a chance to vote for their presidential nominee, along with me again, which I really need because 18 of the 23 people that I defeated two and a half months ago are running again.
That process will work its way up for two weeks, then the votes will be counted on June 2nd and then we’ll be underway. Now, you are right. All of this is happening right in the middle of a pandemic. The COVID-19 crises and what that means and doesn’t mean to traditional modes of campaigns. What it means to the health of our citizens in our communities and what it means to us as a society. We’ve never had to self-quarantine at this level before, do the kind of physical distancing that we’re doing and watch the number of infections and unfortunately deaths.
It’s meant, for me, as a political candidate, first of all, you don’t want to be tone deaf to what’s going on around you. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of confusion. But it also means trying to find a way in the middle of all of that to communicate to people that you still have to find a way to vote. We need a vote and a voice in the Congress. This district has not had that for six months. It means you can’t do the traditional campaigning. There’s no door-to-door. There’s no big events. None of that.
It just means working up, as we have been doing through our social media platforms, a tremendous outreach aimed at educating and providing information to voters about this different process. It means doing a lot of phone banking with our volunteers. It means trying to find a way, personally for me, to connect with as many people as I can through Facebook Live and other means, so that people understand what’s going on in the midst of COVID-19.
This is a very confusing election for people because some people will say, “Well, didn’t I vote for you 10 weeks ago?” I would say, “Yes.” “And you’re telling me that your name is on the ballot now to fill out the term?” I’m saying, “Yes.” “Then you’re saying in May there’s going to be a new ballot, or another ballot, with all these other names on it that we already defeated?” I’m saying, “Yes, but please do each thing because if you don’t, it’ll all go for nought.”
I’m going to stop there except to say that there’s a lot going on with this pandemic. Unfortunately, the zip codes that are being affected are zip codes in my congressional district. I’ve been advocating since day one that we not just set up testing sites, so that we can find a way to actively quarantine those people who may be symptomatic or asymptomatic, but that we also do mobile testing, because it’s proven to work.
We should be finding ways to send physicians out into communities with mobile vans in those zip codes that are most disproportionately affected to do early testing and not wait for people to come to a testing site. I’d like to talk more about it. I don’t want to monopolize this, but there is a lot to talk about, as you might know.
Marc Steiner: There’s a whole lot to talk about. One of those things… I did another piece today and it really affects what you would be doing, if you get to Congress after this next election. Congress is now wrestling with this bill to put another $450 billion for small businesses and taxpayers in the wake of corona. But, what it doesn’t do, and I’m curious to your positions on this, and some people argue that they should do what I’m about to say, which is, it doesn’t give any aid to city or states. A huge divide politically.
It doesn’t cover or freeze rent or cover hazard pay for frontline workers. Some people argue that it should go even further and it should be guaranteeing salaries of workers as they’re doing in Germany and other countries around the globe in the West. Also, guaranteeing health insurance. There’s a lot here and even some of the leaders, Nancy Pelosi and others, have not supported that broad a spectrum of ideas. Where does Kweisi Mfume fit into that and his ideas?
Kweisi Mfume: I’ve been reaching out to members of the House, not as many on the Senate side, people that I know to make that case exactly. In fact, I did an interview a couple of hours ago talking about why it’s important that cities and counties are included in the new stimulus package. They’re disproportionately affected by the weight of all of this. They’re unable to do what they have to do to provide basic services. If this keeps up, there’ll be cutting basic services like fire, police and sanitation. We can’t have any of that.
Cities are doing more than just providing food and food pantries. They just don’t have the money and so my argument, or my case at least that I’ve been making, to those persons who are helping to shape this package now as it goes through the Congress is, please, you just cannot overlook cities and counties. For me, personally, if it’s Howard County, Baltimore City or Baltimore County, that means a lot that they’re included in this so that they have a way to continue to take care of their citizenry while we as a nation try to figure out how we get out of this situation we’re in.
Marc Steiner: I wonder if… [inaudible 00:08:09] some examples here. I was reading a bill this morning. Ilhan Omar put in a bill called the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which is saying that, “For the duration of the coronavirus pandemic you will be forgiven rent and mortgage. We’ll also be taking care of those companies that you owe money to, but you’re off the hook.”
There are people who are pushing for those kinds of bills to take care of working families because people who have decent incomes are not as effected deeply by this and those who can work remotely are not affected deeply. But most working-class Americans and poor-working-class Americans don’t have that income stream.
If they’re not working, they’re not working. They can’t work remotely. So people pushing ideas like that and to guarantee somebody’s income… I think in Britain they’re paying 80% of a person’s income. In Denmark, it’s 90%. Should we be doing those things?
Kweisi Mfume: Well, we should be. The question is will we do those sort of things? The Congress try to do a back-door approach in the first and second stimulus bills by saying, “If you an employer and you’ve got to shut down and if you don’t let go any of your employees, we will make sure that what we’re giving you in terms of money as a loan will in fact be a grant and you don’t have to pay it back.” It’s a kind of back-door approach that says, “Okay, if you don’t fire anybody, we’ll make sure you don’t have to pay the money back.”
The problem is paying the people who are being laid off, not where you just get your money back, and that has not been properly addressed. We’ve got an infusion of cash into the society from these checks that went out and a new set that will go out, but it’s just not the same, Marc. You know that and I know it. When you lose that income, you lose that income. The other thing is that you just can’t go to your landlord and say, “Like everybody else, I just can’t pay you this month or next month. I’m going to get three months behind, would you forgive me for that until things are made whole again?”
Yeah, that might work in 10% of the cases, but in other cases it’s not. So the way around that at least, and I want to commend the mayor here locally, was making sure there are no evictions during this time period at all for people who fall into that bracket. The larger question is what do you do as the United States Congress, the House, the Senate, and the President, to make sure that these people are protected and covered? That’s where you need a profile in courage and I don’t see too many of those coming out of the United States Congress these days.
Marc Steiner: Probably, won’t come out of the Congress, but the issue is that even some of the leadership in Congress I think doesn’t really support this. I’m talking about in the House that’s under Democratic control. This has opened up all kinds of issues for people who are working people in America. Raised all kinds of issues around health care, people losing their insurance, nobody covering that insurance. People are terrified to go to the hospital and doctor even if they’re sick. It seems to be, A, we need the voices out there to be talking about this somehow. So, if you’re sitting in Congress now, what do you do about it?
Kweisi Mfume: The first thing you do is try to win souls. You’re not going to pass anything without 218 votes. I could stand up and raise hell all day long, but unless I’m able to go to individual members one-by-one to find out what their motivation points are, what their interests are and what they’re willing to step forward on, a coalition is not going to assemble. I know that and I know that the leadership knows that. The House of Representatives question is are they doing that?
They do that on major pieces of legislation that have great significance where you got to count one-by-one-by-one. Jim Clyburn, the Whip, is a great person at doing that and it’s a matter of, “If I’m Mayor, as you say, I’ve got to find a way to do that.” I could certainly go to the floor and rail against it, but that’s not going to motivate anybody other than my supporters. The way you put together enough votes to do that is to individually go around and to make sure that’s done.
That you trade, in other words, to get what you need to get that passed, because these people are being evicted in some states every day. Others are falling into food lines, standing and sitting for six hours just to get something to eat. Time is running out and, as I said before, this leadership, in many instances that I see on both sides of the aisle, does not exemplify necessarily a profile in courage. I don’t always see the courage that it takes to do the things that ought to be done.
Marc Steiner: Let’s take a look at where we are right now. Five years ago now Freddie Gray died and these next few weeks people will be wrestling with the consequences of those five years and what’s happened since. You represent a district now that really shows, if nothing else, the disparities that America has to offer. You represent anything from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, to black-middle-class communities in Randallstown, and Baltimore City, to the wealthiest white suburbs of Baltimore and Northern Baltimore County.
Nothing would be more glaring than just to see homes in Sparks and see what’s happening on a Gilmor Homes. Many people look at these last five years and go, “Nothing much has changed with the folks in Gilmor Homes. Nothing much has changed for the Freddie Grays who are still with us. For the pandemic they suffered in lead paint poisoning, lack of healthcare.” You have a government that couldn’t care less at this moment about the Freddie Grays and their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Reflect on it for us for a moment about where we are, why we’re still in the same place down there and what changes that.
Kweisi Mfume: Let me take you back beyond Freddie Gray, which was five years ago this month. I grew up in Gilmor Homes. I was there when the 1968 riots broke out. I said to MSNBC when I was on with Chris Hayes and they were looking back at this five-year period that you have to look beyond that. If you go back to 1968, I asked myself, when the Freddie Gray riots broke out, what has changed? Very little has changed in that amount of time and very little has changed in the five years since then. So much of it has to do with the sort of society that we live in that is affected only by politics and money.
Because we, as persons and individuals who are living in these communities, don’t always have the money to bring about the change that we want, we have to look at finding a way to affect the politics. That happens periodically, but it doesn’t happen enough. Elections have consequences. I said that over and over and over again since first day that I voted. Look at our presidency. That’s a consequence of not participating in the same sort of numbers that we did and we ended up with Donald Trump.
We have got defined a way, I think, to convince the everyday, average person that political change is important because they don’t believe it anymore. It’s a matter of, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” What they’ve seen over and over and over again are promises. That’s something is going to be done and people get into office and don’t do anything. It’s at every level of our government. If we don’t have faith in that we can change things, then we won’t. If we don’t change things, they won’t change on their own.
For me, when I walk through the neighborhood, as I did just a week ago down on Baker Street, and look at what’s going on there, I can say then, and as I could have said from 1968 up to then, very little has changed. I don’t blame people for saying, “Nah, politics is not for me. They’re all corrupt. They’re all this. They’re all that.” If we’re going to do that, then we’ve effectively handed over the keys to our future, to our families and the keys to our own existence to a group of people who are smarter. Who says, “Yes, let me just handle it and I’ll take care of it.” They take care of it, but basically for themselves.
Marc, it is a very tough question. The odds are overwhelmingly against these communities. I just believe that talking about it is the first step. Finding a way to organize systematically, block-by-block, issue-by-issue is the only way that we’re going to change this around because there’s no incentive for the people who are in power to do something. I learned long now that people who do not vote have no line of credit with the people who are elected and therefore they pose no threat to those who work daily against their interest. We’ve got to be a little smarter than that in our communities.
Marc Steiner: Not to [inaudible 00:16:55] too much because we have a couple of things to talk about before we end. I was down in Gilmor Homes just before this whole thing broke and we had to self-isolate. Just walking around and talking to folks there and talking to friends of mine who grew up there as you did. Then you look into places like Baltimore that have these tips in government money going into businesses, but none of it affects the working class or poor-working class sections of the black community in this city and in these communities.
Kweisi Mfume: There’s been bad leadership. We’ve had people in office at all levels that were not good leaders. They got in and they were not the watchdogs they should have been. They got in, they lost the spine that they got in with and so they flip flop on issues or they have the power to change things pretty much uninterrupted and they don’t do it. They don’t do it.
Marc Steiner: I read one piece just recently that you were described as, or described yourself as, a progressive moderate. Let’s talk about what that means. You said moderate on fiscal activities though some people would argue that you have to go into debt, I’m talking government-wise, that you have to spend money to get people out of the other conditions that racism and poverty put people in. How do you respond to that?
Kweisi Mfume: I respond to this by saying you’ve got to spend money wisely. We’ve been spending money, but we’ve not been following the money and we’ve not been measuring the money. So we have a convenient excuse then not to give more money. It’s a vicious cycle. I know people who serve who get caught up into that and they say, “Well, we gave some money. Oh, this or that.”
Then we go out, look, and they get reelected again. So why are they going to pay attention to Kweisi Mfume, when I say, “Look, your leadership is not what it should be. We’ve got to do more things here. Or even that we’ve got to spend more money,” when they believe that they can do less, control the majority of votes that they need and then not do a damn thing?
Marc Steiner: I had these other couple of things there that may be a tad uncomfortable politically. One is the fiscal reports just came out. The Campaign Finance Reports, I should say. You have this spectrum of people who gave money to your campaign. It’s a two-part question. A lot of Hogan supporters, [Rus Barryano 00:19:11] and others put a ton of money into your campaign. A, what does that say and why do you think that happened? B, one of your colleagues in Congress, John Sarbanes, would like to get rid of all of that and create public financing.
Kweisi Mfume: First of all, let me correct you. There were not a lot of Hogan supporters that have put money in my campaign. I can guarantee you that. You mentioned Barryano and somebody else. Yeah, they both made a donation, but there were not a lot of Hogan supporters. It’s just because of the fact that we’re in two different parties. Sarbanes’ decision to do that and his efforts to do that are commendable. I support that. I think we’ve got to get money out of politics.
Nobody, that I know of, likes going around trying to raise money for a campaign. I know I certainly don’t. The problem has been campaign finance reform doesn’t have enough people like Sarbanes who are prepared to stand up publicly and put their name on the line and say they believe in it. Some of us have been arguing for that since 1991 and we still don’t have it. What we got in the interim was Citizens United, which blew up the entire effort to try to reform the process and a Supreme Court that supported it.
That is the correct way to do. I believe in publicly-financed elections. I always have believed in it. I believe in term limits. I believe we’ve got to find a way to measure people periodically on whether or not they’re serving or self-serving. Until we do that, we are going to probably just have conversations like this and another generation will come along and wonder why things haven’t changed.
Marc Steiner: Finally, let me just talk to you about where the Democrats are. This election is going to have to unite two very different wings of the Democratic Party. Might agree with some things on a larger sense, but you have all those around Bernie Sanders’ campaign and some of them around Warren’s campaign.
Then you have the folks around Biden and all the other campaigns. There’s a real divide. You can see now that Democrats really at this point don’t have their act together when it comes to building a bridge to figure out how you take on a Donald Trump come the fall. What role do you see yourself playing there? How do you think that happens?
Kweisi Mfume: I don’t know that it happens. Let’s start there. In 1980, I was on the floor of the Democratic Convention in Madison Square Garden. Barbara Mikulski in Baltimore and myself were the co-chairs of Ted Kennedy’s campaign for Congress. That was considered an upstart. Jimmy Carter was the incumbent president and people were saying, how dare you go out and support Ted Kennedy. He’s running. No one should run. It should be Mr Carter’s all alone.
Well, she and I felt differently and we were the co-chairs of the campaign. So you get to the convention months later and Jimmy Carter, his people on the floor and Ted Kennedy’s people are on the floor at Madison Square Garden, and there’s this chill that you could slice with a knife. The night of the nomination, Kennedy comes out on stage, Carter comes out on stage. That’s the night, usually, if you’re going to have Democratic unity, you put aside everything else, you shake hands, you embrace and you say, “One Democratic Party.”
They barely shook hands that night and that chill that was already on the floor came over the entire nation. So much so that four months later the Democratic Party was fractured. Ronald Reagan was elected president and the rest is history. I don’t know necessarily that that bond heals. I would hope that people would look at, particularly Democrats, what happens when that it doesn’t heal and what happens is that we end up losing in November.
Marc Steiner: This election is a very critical election for this country. As critical as 1980, if not more so on some levels. Given the kind of virulent racism, white nationalism and the neoconservative elite that is dominating the politics of Washington and calling the shots, appointing all the federal judges, all the rest that’s happening, taken down environmental laws, destroying the voting rights that people fought and died for here in the 1960s and beyond, how do you make that message? Where do you think it’s going to go? What does [inaudible 00:23:35] political sense to tell you?
Kweisi Mfume: From here to November is an eternity in politics and it’s just for me too far off to be able to say how it’s going to go. I know how I’d like for it to go, but six months is an eternity in politics. Anything can and usually does happen. I just don’t know.
I do know this, that if, in my case, the Democratic Party does not prepare a precinct-by-precinct strategy to win on the ground, as Tip O’Neil used to say, because all politics is local, if that’s not in place, there’s no organizing efforts and we assume that people are just going to go out and vote because they don’t like Donald Trump then I fear the worst then.
I know that in order to win wars you have to win battles. In order to win battles you’ve got to win on the ground precinct-by-precinct. Voter education, registration and voter turn-out strategy will make the difference. If that were in place, I could call it now, or at least try to call it, but I just can’t at this particular point.
Marc Steiner: Well, Kweisi Mfume, I guess I’ll see you after election day, if not before running around… I guess we’re not going to see each other running around because we’re all stuck. But we’ll see you after election day. Good luck and thanks so much for joining us.
Kweisi Mfume: Well, thank you, Marc. As I said, I always believe voters make the right choices in the elections that they feel strongly about in their states. I’d like to win. I want to win. I fight to win. I’m looking forward to winning, but I am prepared, no matter what, to keep doing what I do, either in office or out of office, because I think we only get a few years on this earth to make a difference. We can either accept that and run with it or pass it along and regret it. I don’t want any regrets when it’s my time to go.
Marc Steiner: Kweisi Mfume is running to take Elijah Cummings’ 7th district congressional seat. Several elections coming up. Always good to talk to you, Kweisi. Thank you so much for joining us.
Kweisi Mfume: Thanks, Marc. I appreciate it. Take care.
Marc Steiner: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us and please stay healthy, stay safe, take care, stay inside.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.