As Congress returns, Rep. Cummings prepares for new era

Rep. Elijah Cummings speaks to a packed house during a Town Hall meeting at Howard Community College's Smith Theater last month.
Rep. Elijah Cummings speaks to a packed house during a Town Hall meeting at Howard Community College's Smith Theater last month. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Elijah Cummings considers himself an optimist.

The 10-term Democratic congressman, a Baltimore-born son of a laborer who honed his political skills during 13 years as a Maryland state delegate, returns to the 115th Congress this week amid a sea change in Washington, with a polarizing Republican about to enter the White House and the GOP in control of the Senate and House of Representatives.


Even when it comes to Donald Trump — a figure Cummings has sharply criticized and questioned in recent weeks — he holds out hope that the president-elect will do what he considers to be the right thing.

"I've said it 50 million times. I want the president to do well," he said. "When I say I want him to do well I say I want him to do well by the American people. I'm waiting to see what's going to happen."


Cummings, during an interview before Christmas in his Catonsville office, said Trump could do right when it comes to infrastructure, supporting improvements to the area's roads and bridges.

Pointing out a bridge nearby on Frederick Road that spans the Baltimore Beltway, Cummings said one of his proudest accomplishments is the $30 million in federal funding he's brought to Baltimore County in the last year for road work.

Yet some of the projects Cummings champions for his district — supporting a stable federal workforce at the Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn, along with health-care and Social Security benefits for his constituents — could be in jeopardy.

Others — such as mass transit and road projects — could fare well if the president-elect convinces a skeptical Congress to carry through on a pledge to invest billions in shoring up the nation's failing infrastructure.

Congressman Elijah Cummings says the Department of Justice report "underscores just how much damage we must undo, and how much work is ahead of us." (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

When the president spells out his proposals for infrastructure, Cummings said he will ask one question: At what price?

Cummings wants to ensure projects in his district, which covers parts of Baltimore and Howard counties and Baltimore City, continue to receive federal support, citing the announcement last month of a $1 million grant for a project to remove the Bloede Dam on the Patapsco River.

Two years ago, Cummings called the Red Line project, a proposed 14-mile light rail line connecting Woodlawn and East Baltimore a "once-in-a-lifetime project." The transit line, with $900 million in federal funding earmarked, was rejected by Gov. Larry Hogan and remains in limbo.

"Development of the Red Line is still the best way to connect all of Baltimore's residents to jobs that can lift them into the middle class, and anything else will be inadequate," said Cummings, who has been critical of Hogan's $135 million plan to redo the city's bus system.

Cummings hopes Trump will be true to his word when he says he won't touch Medicare or Social Security, but was "disheartened" when Trump nominated U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, as the nation's top health official.

"Congressman Price has made it no secret that he wants to gut both Social Security and Medicare," he said. "My constituents paid into these programs and I will not be silent in the face of Republican attempts to cut them."

Growing influence

As Cummings' profile in Congress has grown, including being selected as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he has more opportunities to raise awareness about issues that concern him on a local or national level, said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Cummings said he is proud of recognizing the intersection of national and local issues.

In recent weeks, he has spoken out on the president-elect's potential conflicts of interest, the reported interference from Russia in the 2016 presidential election and the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

"It is my duty, it is my responsibility, to speak out on these issues," Cummings said. "If I didn't, I would consider it legislative malpractice."

In the Flint water situation, where high concentrations of lead are in the drinking water, Cummings "is calling for awareness and safeguards so it wouldn't happen in any city," Eberly said. "He's never struck me as someone who was just trying to bring attention on himself."

Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party, said Cummings does a great job being the voice for the far left of the Democratic party. He also commended the congressman for being a "settling voice" after riots in Baltimore City after the death of Freddie Gray.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and other House Democrats called Tuesday for the FBI to investigate whether Donald Trump's presidential campaign has any connection with

"He seems that he's much more interested in being a national voice than a local voice," Mendelsohn said.

But in a heavily Democratic district, he said Cummings does not need to worry much about his Republican constituents.

"I'm one of his voters but the books are cooked," Mendelsohn said. "Republicans don't have a chance in his district and that's how he treats it."

Eberly said the district has shifted in recent years to include more of the Democrat-heavy Baltimore City.

"It's how they have to look in order to create an advantage to one party," he said.

All politics is local

"I think Elijah Cummings understands that some of the big picture political issues also can have a real local impact," said Chris Van Hollen, a fellow Democrat who replaces Barbara Mikulski in the Senate and was a congressman from Montgomery County who worked with Cummings. "I think there is a connection there."

Cummings said he comes to his Catonsville office, one of three in his district, about once a month. He shares the Frederick Road space with County Councilman Tom Quirk, a Democrat who represents southwest Baltimore County.

Quirk said he'll direct his constituents to Cummings' office when they have federal issues, such as passport issues, problems with the United States Postal Service or immigration.

He described him as a passionate congressman who "brings home the money" to his district.

"He's a fighter. He knows where he stands and he doesn't shy away from a battle, especially on a federal level," he said. "He's definitely very vocal and people know where he stands, which I respect."

"He's just a champion for the people," said Carolyn W. Colvin, acting Social Security commissioner. "He's been that throughout his elected career."

The administration's Woodlawn headquarters has about 10,000 employees – about a fifth of the 53,000 federal workers who live in Cummings' district.

Colvin said Cummings was instrumental in helping add prostate cancer to a list of more than 200 diseases and illnesses that qualify for a quicker decision on Social Security disability benefits.

Van Hollen said Cummings is focused on delivering for everyone in his district, no matter where they live, particularly the local impact of having federal offices in his district.

"He always points out it's important to his congressional district because of the job opportunities at the Social Security Administration," he said. "That's why it's so important we keep that federal investment right there in Baltimore County."


Another colleague in the eight-member Maryland congressional delegation described him as focused, with a powerful voice.


"He brings a voice to issues that deeply respected but he's not just a voice. He then goes and does the hard work to kind of make things happen," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat whose district consists of parts of Baltimore County — including Arbutus, Pikesville and Towson — Baltimore City and Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties. "That's a powerful combination."

(Andy Harris, Maryland's lone Republican congressman, was not made available to comment by staff.)

Cummings, 65, did not challenge Van Hollen for Mikulski's senate seat.

When asked how long he sees himself in Congress, he declines to answer.

"Because I don't know. I honestly don't know," he said. "As long as God gives me the strength, and as long as I'm pleased with what I'm able to accomplish in helping people and lifting up their lives, and as long as my soul is fed by what I do, I'll do it."

District 7 at a glance

District 7 contains portions of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County. A breakdown of its constituents:

Population: 729,001

Median Age: 38.3

Median household income: $59,026

Mean household income: $86,117

Families below the poverty level in the last 12 months: 11.6 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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