Cummings leads Democrats in getting vote out

Maryland Votes 2006

November 06, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

When the Maryland Democratic Party needed a voice to lead its get-out-the-vote efforts, it looked no further than five-term Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

He was not only willing, but available. On the July 3 election filing deadline, Cummings drew no opponents, securing a sixth term representing Maryland in the 7th Congressional District. Rather than quietly assume his post, Cummings has been anything but silent.

Cummings has raised about $27,000 for Democrats in Maryland, and more for Democratic causes in fiercely contested races around the country, throwing his weight behind such candidates as Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee for Senate.

But Cummings has made his mark most in his home state. He has appeared in ads for longtime congressional colleague and Senate candidate Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Cummings has led the party's outreach efforts to draw minority voters to the polls, and he has been front and center at every major Democratic rally - side-by-side with the likes of former President Bill Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

And as he now leads the Democrats' "voter protection" efforts, he has come out swinging against the Republicans, charging them with formulating a "conscious, premeditated plan of voter intimidation and suppression on Election Day."

"I probably have worked harder on this election than I have on my own campaigns," Cummings said. "This election is very critical."

He knows the Maryland races, particularly U.S. Senate, can tilt the balance of power in Washington. Before the summer recess, Cummings said he and his colleagues in Congress told themselves: "Let's not fumble the ball on the one-yard line."

The stakes are high for Maryland Democrats, with the latest polls showing tight races for governor and Maryland's open U.S. Senate seat. And the Democrats are pleased to have Cummings on board.

"No one delivers the message like Elijah Cummings," said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

Cummings stands to gain as well from the arrangement.

"If he can show after the election that his efforts have made a concrete difference in whether someone is elected or defeated, then the party will owe him," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "And if he can get enough people in the party to owe him something, if he has any aspirations for higher office, he can call those chips in."

Cummings, a Baltimore native and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he is weighing taking over Cardin's seat on the House Ways and Means Committee against being a chairman of a subcommittee on drug policy issues. Otherwise, Cummings says, he is focused on the present.

Cummings' district includes much of Baltimore, western Baltimore County and parts of Howard County, with a population that is nearly 60 percent black. Since being elected to Congress in a 1996 special election to replace Kweisi Mfume - who resigned to take over the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - Cummings has had little trouble winning re-election. In 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2002, he never received less than 73 percent of the vote.

Audra Miller, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Republican Party, said the state does not recruit for congressional races, but that its strategy on the state level is to pursue districts "we feel are definitely winnable."

Gimpel said Cummings brings stature to the statewide campaigns and offers clout among a key constituency this election year: black voters.

"He's important, particularly since the party is embarrassed that it has no statewide nominees that are black," he said. "Not only do they have none, the first ones to do it were the Republicans."

Cummings has spent time promoting the Democrats as the party of diversity, hoping to combat complaints by some of its members about the lack of African-Americans on the statewide ticket. Lieutenant governor candidate Anthony G. Brown is the lone minority among a slate of white men. Meanwhile, the GOP has nominated an African-American in Michael S. Steele as its Senate candidate.

"We have to be careful about casting blame on the whole party," Cummings said. "And what we need to be concentrating on more is how do we get African-Americans out to vote, period. Turnout is crucial."

Cummings said if blacks had come out in stronger numbers, Mfume could have won the Democratic nomination for Senate.

When it comes to the race for governor, he bristles at what he calls Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s demeaning characterization of Baltimore.

"I live in the inner city, and it bothers me when I see these ads that not only bash O'Malley, but they bash the city," he said.

Cummings has also spent time advising Brown on gaining more exposure as he campaigns.

"We need to make it clear that we've got an African-American who is going to play a significant role in this government," he said.

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