He has maintained a relatively low profile on the Sandra Fluke story, but Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings played a big role in putting the Georgetown law student in the spotlight and sparking a nationwide conversation over contraceptives.
Fluke, 30, has become a national figure in the debate over whether insurance companies should be required to cover the cost of birth control for employees at religious-based institutions. Her profile was elevated last week when conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh used slurs to describe her and then apologized for the comments.
But weeks earlier, it was Cummings who helped put Fluke on Washington's radar.
"I've had so many people say to me, 'She reminds me of my daughter.' I think that's her appeal," the Baltimore Democrat said in an interview Wednesday. "I expect that this is something that will continue straight through to the election in November."
Aides to Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, discovered Fluke weeks ago as they were scrambling to find a witness to testify about the Obama administration's controversial contraceptive policy.
Staff first noticed the third-year law student and former president of the school's Students for Reproductive Justice group on C-SPAN. Fluke was speaking at a televised Feb. 9 press conference at the National Press Club.
After hearing her story, the aides decided she would be a good witness for a hearing that the oversight committee’s chairman, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, had scheduled for the next day. Fluke agreed to tell her story to the panel. Cummings agreed to hear it.
But Cummings and Issa tussled over whether Fluke was a relevant witness. Republicans say the debate is not about contraception but whether the government can require employers -- in particular religious-based ones like Catholic universities -- to cover the cost of something they object to on religious grounds.
According to a Feb. 15 letter from Cummings, Issa's staff had said that Fluke was not an appropriate witness because the hearing "is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience."
In the end, Fluke did not testify.
But the hearing drew national headlines for its all-male first panel of witnesses. Two women testified in a second panel, but not before Democrats had walked out of the hearing in protest.
"What I want to know is: Where are the women?" New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney said at the time.
Cummings had his staff tape a video of Fluke telling her story and posted it on his website, where more than 75,000 people watched it in four days. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi then offered Fluke an opportunity to speak before a televised meeting of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, which was the video that prompted Limbaugh's remarks.
Limbaugh apologized last week for referring to Fluke as a "slut" and "prostitute," but not before his comments caused a firestorm in Washington. Several of Limbaugh's sponsors pulled ads from his show in the wake of the controversy. Obama called Fluke to personally offer his support.
"I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on," Obama said during a press conference Tuesday. "I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they're being good citizens."
Fluke, meanwhile, has gone on to be a national spokeswoman on the issue.
"I do believe that if she had been allowed to testify...I don't know that this issue would have gotten any where near the attention that it has," Cummings said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun