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In Obama, Cummings finds his rising star

Washington — Washington - Barack Obama liked to describe his run for president as a gamble that the country was ready for change. The bet just paid off spectacularly for him.

Elijah Cummings made an Obama bet, too.

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Twenty months ago, he said yes when Obama called, asking if Cummings would head his campaign in the state. And when Obama won the presidency, the congressman from West Baltimore won big, too.

Elijah E. Cummings is now the man to see if you want something from the incoming administration.

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Catching his breath in his Capitol Hill office near the end of an epochal week, Cummings said he hadn't had time to sift through all the e-mails coming in.

"People want to be on the transition team, and they want jobs," he said. "They see me as a link to those opportunities."

His emergence as a Maryland go-to guy for the president-elect is politics at its most elemental: What Cummings did for Obama has made him an obvious conduit.

Over the past two years, he traveled to Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Virginia and Florida to campaign for Obama. He spent last weekend, two days before his own re-election (he won with almost 80 percent of the vote), spreading the Obama gospel at black churches in Toledo, Ohio.

Cummings said he always had a feeling this would happen.

"I go with my gut a lot. I just knew he was going to win," he said.

It would be easy, in the afterglow of Obama's victory, to play down Cummings' decision to go with him - except that, in doing so, Cummings was bucking the state's Democratic establishment, which was already in the process of lining up heavily behind the front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was a national Clinton co-chair. Gov. Martin O'Malley got out front early for her, too.

It might also seem obvious to expect an African-American congressman to support the first serious black presidential candidate. But prominent black Democrats, such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, decided initially to back Clinton, whose husband enjoyed enormous popularity among black voters. Other senior black elected officials, such as Rep. James E. Clyburn, a high-ranking member of the House leadership, chose to stay on the sidelines until the nomination was decided.

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Politicians are notorious for having long memories, especially when it comes to who was for them - and against them - especially when it mattered most.

So Cummings took a chance, however risky it may have been, and now it's paying off.

He's happy to drop references to conversations with "Barack," but he doesn't pretend to be a member of the inner circle. He has never socialized with Obama, but then again, few others in Washington have, either.

He's never seen Obama at the House gym, where Cummings rides the stationary bike and lifts weights.

"It's just toning, Jack, I'm not going in there to kill myself. I'm 57, man, I'm not trying to prove anything. The younger guys, they challenge me, but I tell them, 'It's all right,' " he says, laughing.

Another workout regular, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, is there in the morning, riding the bike and reading the paper.

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"You get to know people in the gym," said Cummings, who has gotten to know Emanuel, soon to be White House chief of staff. He calls Obama's top aide a "perfect" choice for the job, because of his close attention to detail and close ties to House Democrats.

Cummings said he and Obama had met casually at a conference for state legislators, but their first one-on-one meeting was during the 2004 campaign. In late September of that year, Cummings played host at a Baltimore fundraising breakfast for Obama, who was facing token opposition from Alan L. Keyes, a perennial candidate imported from Maryland at the last minute by desperate Illinois Republicans.

At the event, Cummings, then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he wanted Obama to be more than the third African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. He wanted him to be a "player" - in the party and around the country. O'Malley, still mayor but then praised as a rising national star, strolled into the room as Obama was conducting TV interviews and met the future president for the first time.

Less than four months later, Cummings said Obama phoned, on his way back from a Chicago Bears playoff game, and asked him to chair his campaign in the state.

"I said, 'Can you win?' " Cummings recalled. "He said, 'I will win.' "

Cummings said he accepted on the spot.

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His decision to join Obama early was "a bold move, and it plays well for him," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who lives on the Eastern Shore.

Obama's victory has enhanced Cummings' status among Maryland officeholders, but if the congressman wants to use his new leverage to take his career to a higher level, he'd have to act "sooner rather than later," Trippi said.

"He's definitely one of the people that has achieved a new power base," he said.

Cummings insists that he had always had a good feeling about Obama's prospects, even when pre-primary polls showed black Democrats favoring Clinton over Obama.

He said he believes Obama will use his revolutionary campaign organization to help him govern.

"I remember one time he told me, he says, 'Elijah, the technology is so important, because I can [even] reach people on the beach. Instantly,' " Cummings said. "If he's got a problem with the Congress, and the Congress seems reluctant to carry through the agenda that he has put forth, he's going to text message [supporters] and say, 'Look, call your congressman. Tell him we need your help.' "

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Cummings said he's still trying to fully comprehend the meaning of an African-American president-elect, which has affected him on a deeply personal level.

"I wish that my father could have seen it," he said, recalling how his father, then about 70, had wept when Cummings took the oath of office as a member of Congress for the first time in 1996. "If he had seen Obama [win], I think he would have fainted. He would never imagine this."

Exactly what the changes in Washington will mean for Cummings isn't clear.

He says he's not interested in an administration job, though he hints that he's "heard little things" that he won't discuss. A run for statewide office clearly holds some appeal, but he says he's not making plans.

He is actively involved, inside the House, in an insurgent effort by California Rep. Henry A. Waxman to unseat one of the party's old bulls, 82-year-old Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, as chairman of the powerful commerce committee. If the putsch succeeds, Cummings would advance in seniority on Waxman's old panel, government reform.

He says he wants to be prepared for whatever comes his way and is convinced there is something bigger in store.

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"I feel the same way I felt when I was a state legislator" in the '80s and early '90s, he said. "I also felt the same feeling when I was in special ed as a kid, I thought that there was something bigger for me. ... It's just a feeling, and so if it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, then I have to accept that this may be the last job for me."

Meantime, he says, he'll do everything he can to help Obama succeed. "I believe that I was placed here, to be here at this moment in history, to help him accomplish what he needs to accomplish," said Cummings. "That's what my goal is now."


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