Kweisi Mfume stepped onto the shop floor of the English American Tailoring Co. yesterday and looked at the women cutting pieces of fabric, working sewing machines and pressing new suits.
"I used to work in a place like this," he observed, and described his three years at an auto parts plant in West Baltimore. Having made the connection, he started to work the room.
The visit to the Westminster shop was Mfume's latest foray from Baltimore, where the former congressman and chief of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has been a public figure for more than 30 years, to a corner of the state where he is far less familiar.
Now in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, he struck out yesterday for comparatively conservative confines, from which he hopes to squeeze a few votes in his first statewide campaign.
With the primary less than a month away, candidates who are well-known in their home communities are traveling to introduce themselves to a statewide audience.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 10-term congressman from Baltimore County, has made appearances in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties this week. Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University who lives in Bethesda, and Josh Rales, a businessman and philanthropist also from Bethesda, are in the midst of bus tours.
All are running for the Democratic nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. The winner of the Sept. 12 primary is likely to meet Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in the general election.
"All of Maryland counts," said Mfume, 57. "Every part of the state counts, every individual counts."
The face time might be particularly important for Mfume, who has yet to say whether he will run television advertisements to counter those being aired by Cardin and Rales.
Yesterday, the campaign drove in a caravan past signs urging support for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Republicans popular in Western Maryland, to meet with factory workers in Westminster and Frederick.
In Frederick, Mfume stopped at Hartz & Co. Inc., a sewing shop of more than 200 workers that is slated for closure in October. He emerged from a private meeting with workers to tell reporters that some unspecified help might be on the way. He was trailing several employees ready to pledge their support for his candidacy.
"To be honest, I hadn't heard of him," said Diane Jacobs, a machine operator at the plant for more than 34 years. "He seems like a hardworking person. He came from a background kind of like mine. He had to work to get ahead."
Mfume blamed the workers' predicament at least partly on the North American Free Trade Agreement. "When you've got imports coming in that were produced cheaper in places that have no guidelines, by people who don't even make the minimum wage, it's hard to compete," he said.
As a member of Congress, Mfume voted against NAFTA. Cardin, his principal rival for the Democratic nomination, supported the agreement. Mfume described his former colleague as a "good person, a decent individual, who is an administrator. And I like to think of myself as an advocate. I want to stand up and fight for things."
Cardin campaign spokesman Oren Shur said yesterday that Cardin has backed fair trade with high labor and environmental standards. In an e-mail, Shur said that Cardin opposed expanding NAFTA to the Caribbean and opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement because he believed it would have put Maryland jobs and U.S. labor standards at risk.
"Ben Cardin has a strong track record of getting real results for Maryland's working families," he said. "He's been a national leader on enforcing our trade laws and protecting American jobs. That's why he has earned the strong endorsement of the AFL-CIO in this race."
In Westminster, Mfume campaigned from work station to work station.
"My name is Kweisi Mfume, I'm a former congressman, and I'm running for U.S. Senate," he told seamstress Debbie Waters. "I ask you to look at my record. I don't think you'll find anyone with a better record on labor."
After he moved on, Waters said she had never heard of him but found him likable. "I'm going to look at his stuff," she said.