WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly three years since the #MeToo movement began, ushering in the downfall of dozens of powerful men. But slowly, in recent months, men who faced serious allegations of misconduct have begun to reenter the mainstream.
How to handle their reinventions remains an open question, and it’s one House Democrats will have to answer given the near certainty that Kweisi Mfume — a former member of Congress and NAACP president who was accused of sexual harassment and admitted to dating a subordinate more than a decade ago — will join their ranks in late April.
Earlier this month, Mfume won the special election primary to replace the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, who represented his Baltimore district until his death last October, defeating Cummings’ own wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and nearly two dozen other Democratic candidates.
The seat is safely Democratic, and Mfume is likely to win the April 28 general election to take back the seat he held for nine years before Cummings. But the campaign also brought an allegation of sexual harassment made against Mfume nearly two decades ago back into the spotlight.
Mfume left Congress to serve as the president of the NAACP, and while in the position, he dated one staffer and another alleged she had been sexually harassed by him and was passed over for a promotion after she rejected him, according to reports from the Baltimore Sun. She then threatened to sue the organization and the NAACP paid her $100,000 in 2004 to avoid the lawsuit. Mfume, who has denied the harassment allegation, then left the organization that year.
Mfume’s case is a complicated, nuanced one. He has admitted that, while he was president of the NAACP, he dated a subordinate, and he has called it a “boneheaded” thing to do. During a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Mfume said the relationship lasted for six months and that the pair then mutually agreed to end it.
The Washington Post reported in 2005 that a woman had said Mfume had sexually harassed her and that he had “touched her on the hip,” something Marcia E. Goodman, a lawyer hired by the NAACP to assess the claims at the time, said amounted to a “he said, she said.”
No other details of the woman’s complaint have been made public. But, Goodman wrote in a memo obtained by the Post, “the impression [was] created that a woman must provide sexual favors to Mr. Mfume or his associates in order to receive favorable treatment in the workplace.”
The woman asked for $140,000, according to the Post, and settled for $100,000. She and her lawyer have declined to discuss the case with any outlet since the settlement.
“There were other people at NAACP, I think, that took [the relationship I had] to mean, ‘Ah, if you're going to get ahead with him maybe you need to have an intimate relationship with him,’” Mfume told BuzzFeed News. “And because I was not trying to have intimate relationships with anybody else and did not, then came this allegation of nepotism. And that, in order to get along in this environment, [people thought] ‘Guys, you have to have some sort of sexual relationship.’ That was so far from the truth.”
In 2005, when he ran for Senate, Mfume argued that the allegation was merely an attempt to hurt his campaign, and said earlier this week that his thoughts on the allegation now “are what they were in 2005 and 2006 when I ran for the Senate, here in Maryland, they are as they were on the day that I announced on November the fourth last year, and they are the same now.”
The Baltimore Sun recently confirmed its previous reporting that Mfume was pushed out of the organization by the board following the sexual harassment allegation after reviewing documents on Mfume’s NAACP tenure with personal and professional papers belonging to Julian Bond, the former chair of the NAACP board. Mfume dismissed the Sun story, for which he declined an interview, alleging that Bond’s assessment of Mfume was negative because he was after Mfume’s job at the time.
“It has been reported in at least one, maybe two pieces that Julian really wanted to position that I got elected to by the NAACP,” Mfume said Wednesday. “That's been the conclusion of at least one historian that has paid a lot of attention to the NAACP. I don't know if that's true. I really don't even care if it's true… I mean, I have a complete different interpretation of things.”
In recent years, Congress has cracked down on sexual harassment and in December 2018 passed new laws to change congressional policies on sexual harassment and make members liable for their own misconduct. The Democratic caucus in particular took a hard line in cases like those of former Sen. Al Franken and former Reps. John Conyers and Ruben Kihuen.
But House Democrats don't appear to be grappling with questions about Mfume’s complicated history and the allegation of sexual harassment from his tenure at the NAACP in any way.
Though the Ethics Committee declined to comment for this story, one senior Democratic aide told BuzzFeed News that, because the allegations occurred while Mfume was neither in Congress nor campaigning for Congress, they are outside the Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction.
And Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who led the reforms passed in late 2018, said conduct like Mfume’s couldn’t be addressed through the recently enacted laws.
“It deals with conduct here in Congress of members and staff,” she told BuzzFeed News recently. “I mean, you look at people like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein — you know there isn’t tolerance anymore for that kind of conduct and you can be held accountable, so that’s about all I can say about it.”
A follow-up to Speier’s office about how, if at all, the House Democrats are prepared to handle allegations prior to a candidate campaigning for Congress went unanswered, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office did not comment on the record. Two other senior House Democratic aides told BuzzFeed News there has been no discussion thus far about how to handle allegations made against members that fall outside the Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction.
Former Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, a longtime friend of Mfume’s, told BuzzFeed News she knew “vaguely” about the allegation against Mfume while he was at the NAACP, which resurfaced again when she was preparing to endorse Mfume during his Senate bid.
“I remember going through a deep dive, both with him, and in my work with the affiliate of the National Organization of Women at that time,” Edwards said, “and then coming to the conclusion that, you know, it made sense to endorse him, that, you know, that he had addressed the allegation — that in fact he recognized, even before it was made public, that he had a change in the relationship with a staff person. And they were both, you know, single and adults at the time.”
Edwards added, “I mean, I certainly don't think those are the kind of choices that he would make now and he never made those kind of choices again.”
Mfume said this week that since winning the primary he’s had conversations with House members and with leadership, and Democrats who served with him previously recently told Maryland Matters that they are looking forward to Mfume’s return.
“He and I worked very well together,” Rep. Bobby Rush told the outlet. “I’m really excited. As a matter of fact, I’m giddy.”
Maya Raghu, the director of workplace equality at the National Women’s Law Center, told BuzzFeed News that Democrats could try to tackle allegations like Mfume’s by establishing new election structures.
“Especially elections where candidates have to be a member of a party to run or, you know, certainly if they want the endorsement of the party, there could be some sort of code of conduct or rules that the parties have for people who want to be candidates,” Raghu said. “I mean, they have other rules for running, so this could be one as well.”
For Democrats, that could mean establishing a code of conduct through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but the organization usually does not involve itself in races like Mfume’s that are so safely Democratic. Currently, a DCCC source said, the organization requires all staff to take sexual harassment training, and all “red to blue” campaigns — candidates in swing districts — are required to undergo sexual harassment training and implement a sexual harassment policy. The DCCC declined to comment on the record for this story.