Story originally posted at news.wypr.org on Sept. 16, 2015.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant could be in position to lead a change in Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District, which includes parts of Baltimore City as well as areas of Baltimore and Howard counties.
But political observers say the person occupying that seat now, Congressman Elijah Cummings, holds all the cards. And he hasn’t made it clear yet what his plans are for 2016. He said Monday that it is “definitely premature” to assume he will not run for re-election, leaving open the possibility he could become the Baltimore candidate in the race to replace retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski.
Retired Johns Hopkins Political Science Professor Matthew Crenson says Cummings could “change the whole complexion of the race by declaring for Senate.”
“That would put Bryant first in line to take the seat.”
Bryant says that would be fine with him.
“It is my hope and prayer that he’ll go to the Senate and mentor me in Congress,” he said.
All About The Base
Bryant says he respects Cummings and is not running against anyone. That raises the question, who is he running for?
“My base is millennials; young people who have been disenfranchised and not connected to the electoral process,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he’s leaving out older voters. He says they are looking for a change as well.
“Even older voters are frustrated as evidence with the surge of popularity with Donald Trump and Ben Carson,” Bryant says.
His cross-generational appeal can be seen Sundays at the Empowerment Temple AME Church Bryant started in 2000 that currently claims more than 10,000 members.
Crenson says that congregation will help form his base but adds Bryant might have trouble expanding beyond that.
“He’s going to run less strongly outside of Baltimore City; especially among people who are so comfortable and familiar with Congressman Cummings,” he says.
Crenson warns that Bryant’s protest last May against state approval for a youth prison in Baltimore City in which he blocked highways into downtown during morning rush hour may not have earned him many supporters from outside of the city, especially if they were stuck in traffic.
“People…who live in Baltimore City may respect him as an activist,” he said. “But others, especially outside of Baltimore City in the district, will look at him as a disruptive force.”
Bryant defends his protest.
“I shut down traffic because they had laid off 218 educators in the city of Baltimore and found funding to erect a juvenile detention center.”
He argues that the protest should serve as an example of his fearlessness and how far he is willing to go to get the job done “even at the risk of my own arrest.”
Bryant also defends what has been described as his politically charged eulogy at Freddie Gray’s funeral last April.
The eulogy, called “Breaking the Box,” referred to the story in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead, but didn’t open the casket himself. Bryant called that a metaphor for black America.
“Don’t expect nobody to open the door for you,” he thundered. “If they don’t open the door, kick that sucker down and get what you need. Get up!”
Critics blamed Bryant for inciting the riot that followed that afternoon. But he complains it’s unfair to make him the scape goat for a broken justice system.
“It wasn’t me that started it but maybe it was the officers that severed his spine by 80 percent; maybe it was a corrupt system that didn’t want [the police] arrested.”
The eulogy – which Bryant ended by quoting the chant “No Justice, No Peace” – could at least help him in the city, according to Crenson.
He says the Freddie Gray incident highlights something wrong in the relationship between police and the community.
“What Bryant did was to open up that issue and, I think, put himself near the front of the solution for it,” says Crenson.