Elijah Cummings' powerful voice and heavy heart

Midst civil unrest, Cummings offers the most powerful voice

I don't know if he could ever stop teenagers from doing stupid and violent things, but, if any man could command attention — and even persuade his fellow citizens to keep the protests of Freddie Gray's death in the days ahead forceful but peaceful — it's the 64-year-old congressman who stood front and center to make such a plea Sunday at Bethel AME Church in West Baltimore.

The same man spoke the next day with urgency and eloquence at Gray's funeral at New Shiloh Baptist Church.

Elijah E. Cummings has a big voice that streams up from the streets of Baltimore and through his heart. He's a long-time warrior for justice. He speaks truth to power even as a member of the power class. He's not above pleading — with rival Republicans or constituents — for what he knows is right.

"I haven't come here to ask you to respect the wishes of the [Gray] family," he said Sunday in a message to protesters about keeping their demonstrations peaceful. "I've come here to beg you."

And then he addressed mourners at Gray's funeral, setting aside prepared remarks to offer words pulled from a deep and scarred place inside.

"I've often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see. But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see. There's something wrong with that picture."

With a quiver in his voice, Cummings mentioned his nephew, a 20-year-old rising senior at Old Dominion University who was shot to death in 2011 in a house where he lived with other students.

The congressman eulogized Christopher Cummings as a gifted student with an entrepreneurial spirit who "was going to be somebody."

On Monday, in Baltimore, he said: "I mourn every day, every day I mourn for what could have been."

And then he said this, looking toward Freddie Gray's mother: "For me, I am in the twilight years, but I am telling you we will not rest, we will not rest until we address this and see that justice is done. … We will not fail you."

That reference to "twilight years" hardly fits a man who seems to be as energetic as ever, fully embracing his role as a wise patriarch of Baltimore and, in Congress, as a check on Republicans who relish conducting investigations of anything that has the makings of an Obama administration scandal.

As the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Cummings has had a starring role as chief defender of the administration. There's nothing retiring about him.

Which is why many are watching to see if he decides to run for the Senate seat Barbara Mikulski will leave in January 2017.

The Maryland primary election is 363 days away — April 26, 2016 — and, so far, two of Cummings' congressional colleagues have entered the campaign. Fourth District Rep. Donna Edwards is in. So is Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Both are Democrats. If Cummings gets into the race, we'll see an intriguing three-way battle that will leave two members of the House of Representatives out of a job.

In an interview last week, Cummings acknowledged that he had conducted polls. "And I told the pollster, 'Don't just tell me what I want to hear,'" he said.

The polls showed Cummings running ahead of both Edwards and Van Hollen.

"I haven't seen a poll yet where I'm not running No. 1," he said.

There are good reasons for that: He's been in office a lot longer than Edwards and he's better known than Van Hollen.

But making the decision to run for Mikulski's seat is not easy.

Cummings' role in Congress could be critical during the year ahead, with Hillary Clinton running for president and the special committee on the 2012 attack on the U.S. facility at Benghazi still alive. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the deadly attack. Cummings has called that committee a "charade" and accused Republicans of trying to stretch the Benghazi investigation until just before the 2016 election.

So maybe he wants to stick around for that fight. There's also an important investigation of management problems at the Secret Service; Cummings has been in the middle of that. ("They've got better security at Safeway," he said.)

Though his role in the House gives Cummings a national stage, the Senate must beckon. His election would be historic: If victorious, either Cummings or Edwards would become Maryland's first African-American senator.

But he hears different things from different people — the many, including his wife, who believe this is his big moment and urge him to run; others, including a banker and guy outside Lexington Market, who say they worry about him "not being there," should he lose the election and his 7th District seat.

Cummings won't say when or where he'll make a decision, but it won't be a pollster that makes it for him.

"I'll go with my gut," he says. "That's what I always do."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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