Congressman Elijah Cummings Dead At 68
An iconic and honorable Member of Congress has passed away.
Elijah Cummings, who served as a Congressman from Maryland since 1996 and most recently served as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee and was heavily involved in the investigations that are leading down the road to the impeachment of the President, has died at the age of 68:
Elijah E. Cummings, a Democratic congressman from Maryland who gained national attention for his principled stands on politically charged issues in the House, his calming effect on anti-police riots in Baltimore, and his forceful opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump, died early Thursday morning at Gilchrist Hospice Care, a Johns Hopkins affiliate in Baltimore. He was 68.
After undergoing an unspecified medical procedure, the Democratic leader did not return to his office this week, the Baltimore Sun reported. A statement from his office said that he had passed away due to “complications concerning longstanding health challenges.”
Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers and Baptist preachers, Mr. Cummings grew up in the racially fractured Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s. At 11, he helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks. “Perry Mason,” the popular TV series about a fictional defense lawyer, inspired him to enter the legal profession.
“Many young men in my neighborhood were going to reform school,” he told the East Texas Review. “Though I didn’t completely know what reform school was, I knew that Perry Mason won a lot of cases. I also thought that these young men probably needed lawyers.”
In the Maryland House of Delegates, he became the youngest chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus and the first African American to serve as speaker pro tempore, the member who presides in the speaker’s absence.
In 1996, he won the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Kweisi Mfume (D) vacated to become NAACP president. Mr. Cummings eventually served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and as ranking Democrat and then chairman of what became the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
He drew national attention as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief defender during 2015 congressional hearings into her handling of the attack three years earlier on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The attack killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
He was “the quintessential speaking-truth-to-power representative,” said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. “Cummings has never shied from a very forceful give-and-take.”
Baltimore’s plight informed Mr. Cummings’s life and work on Capitol Hill, a connection exemplified by his response to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in April 2015 and the explosion of outrage that came after it.
Gray died of injuries suffered while riding, improperly secured, in a police van after he was arrested for carrying a knife, in his pocket, that police said was illegal. His death ignited rioting in Baltimore and elevated tensions nationally over perceived racism and excessive violence in law enforcement.
Speaking at the funeral, Mr. Cummings, who lived near where Gray was arrested, bemoaned the presence of media to chronicle Gray’s death without celebrating his life.
“Did you see him? Did you see him?” Mr. Cummings asked in his booming baritone. The church exploded with applause, and civil rights activist Jesse L. Jackson sat, rapt, behind him. “Did you see him?”
“I’ve often said, our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see,” he said, his voice rising. “But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see! There’s something wrong with that picture!”
When looting began, hours after the funeral, Mr. Cummings rushed, bullhorn in hand, to a troubled West Baltimore neighborhood, where he worked to restore order and to assure residents that authorities were taking the case seriously. (Six officers would be charged in Gray’s death, although prosecutors failed to secure a conviction against any of them.)
Amid the unrest, he and a dozen other residents marched, arm in arm, through the streets, singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Most recently, Congressman Cummings became a target of the President but he was able to give as good as he got:
The first two years of the Trump administration were agonizing for Mr. Cummings. While battling ill health, including heart surgery, and as many other democrats advocated a strategy of resistance to the divisive president, he made fruitless efforts to work with the newly elected Republican in the White House and found himself sidelined by his House colleagues in the GOP majority.
In a bipartisan gesture, he attended Trump’s inauguration and, at the luncheon afterward, raised an issue on which he felt they could find common ground, lowering prescription drug prices. In that and in future encounters, he urged the president to pursue policies that could unite the country and burnish his legacy. The congressman said that after a few promising meetings, he never heard from Trump again.
“Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have had a lot of hope,” Mr. Cummings later remarked. “He is a man who quite often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth.”
As ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Mr. Cummings became a leading voice against the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a change that critics contended would discourage participation by documented and undocumented immigrants alike.
He was also a forceful opponent of an immigration policy that separated thousands of children from their parents after they illegally crossed the southern U.S. border. He described the Trump White House as inhumane in its use of “child internment camps.”
After Democrats won control of the House in the November 2018 midterm elections, Mr. Cummings was elevated to chairman of the Oversight Committee, a position that he used to sound further alarms. He spearheaded probes into security clearances issued by the White House over the objections of career officials and payments made during the 2016 campaign to silence women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.
Mr. Cummings had a combative streak, but he was adept at calming volatile situations, such as the sharp exchange between Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) during a hearing in February 2019.
The Oversight Committee was taking testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, and Tlaib accused Meadows of pulling a “racist” stunt by having a black woman, an administration employee, stand behind him. Meadows demanded that her words be stricken from the record.
Mr. Cummings called Meadows “one of my best friends” and prompted Tlaib to say that she was not calling Meadows a racist. By the next day, the conservative Meadows and liberal freshman Tlaib were hugging in public.
More from The Baltimore Sun:
Cummings was born in 1951 and raised in Baltimore, where he continued to live.
He was one of seven children of Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth Elma Cummings, née Cochran, who were sharecroppers on land where their ancestors were enslaved. The couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s.
As a child, Cummings struggled in elementary school and was assigned to special education courses. However, after showing promise in high school at City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at Howard University in Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.
In 1982, with the support of several established city officials, Cummings ran for state delegate and won. He served in the Maryland General Assembly for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named speaker pro tem.
In late 1995, Cummings decided to run for Maryland’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House after Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced he would resign to become the head of the NAACP. Cummings served as a congressman since 1996.
Cummings was an active member of New Psalmist Baptist Church and was married to Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was elected chair of the Maryland Democratic Party in December 2018.
Most recently, of course, Cummings made the national news as one of the latest targets of the President’s unhinged Twitter attacks during which he engaged in a series of racist tropes to attack the Congressman, his district, and the entire city of Baltimore. Cummings, being the person he was, did not sink the President’s level but did stand up for his district, which he returned to every night after working on Capitol Hill, and the City of Baltimore.
Cummings was most assuredly a partisan Democrat, but one could tell that he was also an exceedingly fair and generous person who did his best to work across the aisle when he could. He enjoyed a close friendship with the Ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee Mark Meadows, and earlier this year came to his defense when freshman Congresswoman Rashida Talib called Meadows a racist. At the same time, he could often be a thorn in the side of the GOP, especially when he was the Ranking Member of that same Committee and felt strongly that he and his fellow Democrats were not being treated fairly. All in all, though, he was an excellent representative of his constituents of his constituents and the American people and he will be missed.