BALTIMORE, Md. – Democrat Kweisi Mfume says that if he regains the seat in Congress he once held in a heavily Democratic Baltimore area district, cutting violent crime in the city and its suburbs will be his top concern.
Mfume and Republican Kimberly Klacik won special primaries Tuesday for the congressional seat that was held by the late Elijah Cummings, who died in October.
In a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 4 to 1, the Democratic nominee will be the heavy favorite heading into the April 28 special general election. The majority-black district includes parts of Baltimore's inner city that have struggled with drugs and violent crime as well as more well-to-do communities in the suburbs.
“The first thing I want to do is to find a way to drive down this level of violent crime and gun violence. There are too many victims," Mfume said in an interview after his primary victory speech. "There are too many murders and there’s too much fear.”
Baltimore had 348 homicides last year — the fifth straight year of more than 300 murders — making it the city's most violent year ever per capita.
Violent crime also has risen in other parts of the 7th Congressional District.
“The murder rate in Baltimore County doubled in the last 12 months,” Mfume said. "In Howard County, we’re seeing things that we hadn’t seen before, so I think most citizens are concerned about that, gun violence and crime. I am.”
Mfume stepped down in 1996 to lead the NAACP after serving five terms as a congressman and repeatedly told supporters “experience matters” in his victory speech.
Diya Hafiz-Slayton yelled over the noise of the crowd at Mfume's victory gathering in Baltimore to say she was thrilled he had won and cited his experience as a main reason for supporting him.
"He's from Baltimore. That is exciting to us, and we need that in Baltimore right now. We know that when he gets to Congress he's going to hit the ground running," she said.
For the GOP, Klacik gained attention last year after her social media posts showing trash in Baltimore prompted President Donald Trump to tweet that the district is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
Klacik has pointed to a federal program known as opportunity zones as a way of helping struggling parts of the district. The program, which is supported by the president, aims to spark private investment in distressed communities with tax incentives for people who invest in real estate projects and operate businesses in designated low-income communities.
“I am going to do whatever it takes with the administration, with the community, anyone that wants to help and push this," Klacik said at the debate in January.
A crowded field of 24 Democrats and eight Republicans were on the ballot. Mfume dominated in Baltimore city, taking more than 50% of the vote, and he captured more than 40% in Baltimore County. In Howard County, he was among the top three vote-getters, with Maya Cummings and Terri Hill. Klacik won decisively in all three counties in the district.
Mfume also led in fundraising, raising about $266,000, according to federal campaign finance reports filed in the middle of last month. Klacik led in fundraising for the GOP primary with about $48,860, according to filings.
Whoever wins the special general election will serve the rest of Cummings' term through Jan. 3, 2021 and have to stand for reelection in November to keep the seat.
Cummings, who won 12 terms in Congress, died in October at age 68. The civil rights activist's legacy figured prominently in the minds of some voters.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” said Baltimore resident Kyle Baylor, who voted for former Cummings aide Harry Spikes.
Clarksville resident Laura Shovan, 50, said Cummings was "such an important part of our community.”
“It’s not just the seat. It’s that it was Elijah Cummings’ seat,” Shovan outside a polling site in Highland.
The Democratic candidates included Cummings' widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a former chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, as well as several state legislators who live in the district.