Crowded race in the Seventh To succeed Mfume: Candidates galore but a dearth of issues in congressional race.

February 03, 1996

THE FACT THAT 32 candidates are fighting to succeed Rep. Kweisi Mfume tells volumes about the unsettled state of politics in the Seventh Congressional District. Almost anything can happen in this snap election that was precipitated by Mr. Mfume's announcement in December that he will leave Congress to become the chief executive of the ailing National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A primary race in that lopsidedly Democratic district four years ago brought out only 66,000 voters, or one-third of those registered. If this year's participation is anything like that, there will be nervous nail-biting on March 5.

These are still early days, but three Democrats have to be regarded as front-runners: Del. Elijah E. Cummings, state Sen. Delores G. Kelley and the Rev. Frank M. Reid III.

Mr. Cummings, a city resident and seasoned legislator in Annapolis, has managed to win the support of most elected politicians, including a group in the Catonsville area of Baltimore County. If that support translates into organizational muscle on election day, it could give him an edge he will need because his own district in the city usually has a poor turnout.

Ms. Kelley, of Randallstown, has represented the city and Baltimore County in Annapolis. This is a clear advantage in a congressional district crossing jurisdictional lines, where county voters are still a numerical minority but are more likely to vote than city residents.

Mr. Reid's power base is his Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a downtown church with a substantial suburban membership. He also has the support of his step-brother, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. While the Randallstown resident has gotten wide television exposure, he is untested in electoral politics.

The absence of any real issues makes the Seventh District race intriguing. As a consequence, voters are likely to make their decision on the basis of their perception of candidates' character, experience and potential. To get these messages across, the leading candidates are likely to use quite a bit of television and targeted mailing. This will test their ability to raise substantial amounts of funds quickly. Yet there is no real alternative to costly media blitzes because there is not enough time for a conventional door-to-door campaign.

There is nothing wrong with a political beauty contest as long as voters take the trouble to learn enough about the candidates to make educated choices. The Seventh needs a representative who can be effective and will not be lost in the halls of Congress.

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