Departure of Mfume meant representation without representative Vacancy in 7th District put some requests on hold until after today's election

April 16, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- For the past two months, anyone who called the office of former Rep. Kweisi Mfume has been met with the fairly anonymous greeting: "Office of the 7th Congressional District."

That's because the Baltimore-area congressional seat has been vacant since Mr. Mfume stepped down Feb. 15 to head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since then, under rules of the House of Representatives, his former office and staff have been left in the hands of the clerk of the House -- their official duties ranging from packing boxes with the former congressman's official papers to wrapping up constituent casework.

Residents who want to voice an opinion -- or get an opinion -- are told to call one of Maryland's senators.

"We're serving constituents in any way we can," said Dan Wilson, Mr. Mfume's former press secretary, who has stayed on. "Obviously, without a congressman, there are certain requests that are impossible to honor."

You can't speak to the congressman, for example.

Some people, it seems, still don't know they have no representative.

But starting tomorrow, callers to the office should finally hear the name of the district's newly elected member. Del. Elijah E. Cummings, who won the Democratic primary in March, was expected to win easily over Republican Kenneth Kondner in today's special general election in the heavily Democratic district.

Dee Hood, for one, will be happy to finally have a representative.

With the seat vacant, Ms. Hood -- a downtown Baltimore resident -- assumed that an office with no congressman would have been no help to her family when her son's fiancee, a Russian citizen, was denied a visa to visit the United States. So, she didn't call.

Normally, she said she would have asked for help in getting the State Department to reconsider the visa application, "because that's what congressmen do," Ms. Hood said. Her son, a federal employee living in Germany, came home for a visit without his fiancee last month.

Ms. Hood, 60, director of a senior center in Govans, said she also would have liked to talk to her representative to lobby against cuts in federal funding for senior centers and programs for senior citizens.

Although she spoke to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's office in the neighboring district, Ms. Hood said, she missed talking to her voting representative.

"I kind of joke and say I'm without representation," Ms. Hood said.

Mr. Cummings is preparing to step in.

The Maryland House speaker pro tem from West Baltimore said he is planning a news conference in the morning to announce his chief of staff and other key players in his office.

And Mr. Kondner?

"Honestly, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to win," he said. "I've been trying to get to that point."

But until the special election results are in tonight, Robin H. Carle, the clerk of the House, is boss of the 7th District office, said her special assistant, Gerry Vans.

When a district is between elected representatives, the clerk of the House takes charge of staff members, even to the extent of shielding them from reporters. But the workers, who remain employed until a new representative is elected, still can talk to constituents.

"The theory is that the seat, the office, belongs to the people of the congressional district, so employees act as stewards" until a new representative is elected, Mr. Vans said.

"There is no voting representative until a successor is elected, but other functions of the office to serve the constituency could continue."

Almost. Simple things, such as contacting agencies such as the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of constituents, can be handled in a day or so. More complex requests will have to wait.

"If it's something that cannot be handled quickly, then the staff is directed to advise the constituent that they would open a file, but that no work would necessarily be done on that file and that the file would be passed on to the next elected member," Mr. Vans said.

Since Mr. Mfume stepped down, about 10 of his former constituents in the 7th District have contacted Mr. Cardin's office, which referred them to one of the senators, said Susan Sullam, Mr. Cardin's press secretary. But that number may not be unusual, Ms. Sullam said, because residents who are unsure in which district they live sometimes call the 3rd District.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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