In the 7th, the heavyweights hold offices 6 elected officials tout their skills for Congress in Democratic primary

Campaign 1996

February 28, 1996|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

They are considered the heavyweights in Tuesday's wide-open Democratic primary fight for the 7th District congressional seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume.

They are the experienced hands who know the stuff of campaigns and have the ability to raise the money needed to run a successful one. They generally enjoy higher name recognition than other candidates, are good on their feet, accustomed to public scrutiny and knowledgeable about government and issues. And they have their own constituencies and bases of support.

They are the officeholders: Mary W. Conaway, the Baltimore register of wills; Del. Elijah E. Cummings; Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis; state Sen. Delores G. Kelley; Del. Salima Siler Marriott; and Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr.

Each of the six elected officials in the 7th District contest -- four state delegates from districts across Baltimore, a state senator from Baltimore County, and the register of wills from West Baltimore -- would bring his or her own strengths to Congress.

But among the bunch, the ideological differences seem barely measureable.

"I don't think many of us have many different approaches to the issues -- more jobs, better education, welfare reform, economic development and affordable housing," said Mrs. Conaway, the only candidate who has run, and won, in a citywide race before -- four times since 1982.

The differences are in style and experience -- both arguable points that lie in the eyes of the beholder.

Those differences, however, have left the race with split endorsements, fractured allegiances and divided loyalties -- as the 27 Democrats running for the party's nomination in the March 5 primary compete for the limited number of votes.

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Mr. Cummings, 45, speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, is expected to be among the candidates who capture a sizable portion of those votes.

A four-term legislator from West Baltimore, he has by far raised the most money of the elected officials, mostly owing to his support from the House leadership -- including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. -- and business leaders and lobbyists.

"I think he's got the personal characteristics and temperament to be an effective congressman, and more than that, he is a bridge builder," Mr. Taylor said.

Asked why of the five legislators in the race he believed Mr. Cummings is enjoying such strong support in Annapolis, Mr. Taylor said, "I think he has a very open style and is willing to listen to everyone, entertain proposals from everyone -- and that's appealing to all constituencies."

Mr. Cummings, echoing comments of other legislators in the race, all of whom understand the value of compromise, said, "I'm not going to Congress to fight. My whole life has been about the business of working with people.

Throughout the campaign, he has talked about "empowerment," which he explains as "finding a solution in the community and making government a partner -- as opposed to the sole resource for addressing the problem."

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Another of the top candidates is Ms. Kelley, 59, a first-term state senator from a new Baltimore County legislative district that straddles the city and county line.

Ms. Kelley, an English professor at Coppin State University, is touting the fact that her district now includes both the city and county -- just as the 7th District does -- as one of her strengths as a candidate in the race.

It was enough to convince Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III to endorse her.

"We need to have experience in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and Delores is the only candidate to bring these groups together," Mr. Ruppersberger said. State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, is solidly behind Ms. Kelley. "I think she'd be a wonderful congressperson," she said.

"I met Delores when we both were on the PTA, and she's been an active community leader for more than 20 years, and if you work in the vineyards long enough, people respect that," Ms. Hoffman said.

Formerly a city delegate who ran on Ms. Hoffman's legislative slate, Ms. Kelley moved to the new Baltimore County district created by the legislature's 1991 redistricting plan and ran for the new Senate seat in 1994.

Ms. Kelley, who sits on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, also stresses her experience as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Federal Relations as another reason she is ready for the job.

"I'm not a Johnny-come-lately," she said.

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Mr. Montague, 53, a third-term legislator from Northeast Baltimore, is a highly regarded delegate, a lawyer who is mentioned as a possible candidate for Maryland attorney general.

But he instead is turning his sights to Capitol Hill.

Mr. Montague, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as House chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, is viewed by many as the candidate to beat, if he could get his message out.

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