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Rep. Elijah Cummings to help craft a party platform of unusual import

Can Elijah Cummings help unify Clinton-Sanders supporters?

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has for years served as a kind of defense attorney for the Obama administration, deflecting Republican investigations as the top Democrat on the House committee charged with federal oversight.

But the Baltimore lawmaker will have an entirely different role this summer as Democrats prepare to nominate a presidential candidate in Philadelphia: He will have to be a conciliator, helping to stitch an unexpectedly divided party back together.

Cummings is the chair of the party's platform drafting committee, an ordinarily sleepy task that will take on new significance this year as Democrats try to appease Bernie Sanders' supporters and ensure that they maintain their energy for the party's front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in the November election.

The platform, in other words, will be a central part of the effort to reunite the party.

"My approach is not to take us to common ground — it's not good enough this time," Cummings said in an interview. "I want to take us to higher ground.

"The way you do that, the way I've done it in the past, is to keep people's eyes on the prize — on the things that people truly care about."

Republicans will have their own challenges in crafting a platform this year because their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, has ripped up GOP orthodoxy.

The New York businessman has taken a more left-leaning view of trade, and has proposed closing tax loopholes for the rich and maintaining current levels of entitlement spending.

He alienated some Republicans this year by suggesting that women who have an abortion should face "some form of punishment," a position he later retracted.

Republicans select convention delegates from each state to help write a platform. This year, Maryland will send JoeyLynn Hough of Frederick County, who helped organize the Trump campaign in Western Maryland, and Ben Marchi, a longtime GOP activist who lives on the Eastern Shore.

Hough is married to state Sen. Michael J. Hough, who chaired Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign in Maryland. She said her approach to the platform will be "to preserve the conservative voice of the Republican Party, preserve conservative values."

A party's platform — a lengthy document that outlines positions on a wide range of policies — is not binding on its nominee. But it helps define the party's vision for its own members and the wider voting public, and can have an impact on the race.

Gay-rights advocates viewed the inclusion of support for same-sex marriage in the Democrats' 2012 platform as a victory. That year, the party endured days of protest and controversy after a line declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel was surreptitiously struck from the platform.

Campaigns generally negotiate the contours of a platform behind the scenes before the convention, which reduces the importance of the committees themselves. But several observers said Cummings is well positioned to play a role in those early talks as well — and they said his selection as the chairman is a signal that he holds sway with leaders from both the Clinton and Sanders camps.

Cummings, 65, has served as the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee since 2011. In that role, he has frequently battled with Republicans over controversies involving the Obama administration.

He received praise from Democrats, and scorn from Republicans, for his defense of Clinton during her testimony last October about the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Cummings has endorsed Clinton for president. But he waited to back her until late in the primary season, just days before the Maryland election in April. He has also worked closely with Sanders on efforts such as bringing down the cost of prescription drugs. And he is close to Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren of Massachusetts, a leader of the party's liberal wing, who has crossover appeal for many Sanders supporters.

Cummings says he understands the enthusiasm for Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont.

"Folks are not showing up at 20,000 and 25,000 clips for a Sanders rally because they just want to have a nice day. They're showing up because they are frustrated. They're frustrated at government; many of them feel that government has forgotten them," Cummings said. "I get that."

Sanders' campaign has challenged two other Democrats involved in the development of the party's platform — Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts — describing them as "aggressive attack surrogates" for Clinton. But the campaign has been silent about Cummings, who was named to the committee by party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Still, the effort to boot Malloy and Frank, which was swiftly rejected, underscores the perilous politics involved. Sanders has long complained that establishment Democrats lined up early behind Clinton. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who also sought the Democratic nomination before dropping out of the race after finishing a distant third in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, made a similar complaint).

Democratic leaders deny that there was any orchestrated effort to install Clinton as the nominee, but they cannot afford to dismiss the concern.

The wave of young and first-time voters who have flocked to Sanders will want to be assured that the party is embracing the ideas he brought to the campaign or they could tune out for the general election.

Sanders supporters are likely to seek the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage as a platform plank this year, for instance, and tough language on breaking up large banks — both of which have been central to his campaign.

Sanders, who named five members to the 15-member drafting committee, included pro-Palestinian advocate James Zogby among his picks. The appointment has been read as an effort to recognize the Palestinian cause in the party's platform.

Just as important as the issues is the sense that party leaders such as Cummings are setting up a fair process, several said.

"The Sanders people are going to go in extraordinarily skeptical of the process and extremely defensive about what kinds of suggestions are made about the direction of the platform," said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. "The first thing that the leadership needs to do is to create a set of rules, a sense of decorum, in which everything seems like it is fair to both sides."

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee did not respond to a request for comment about Cummings' selection.

The public process begins next week, about two months before the opening of the Democratic convention, with the first of two hearings in which members of the drafting committee will receive testimony. The panel will create a first draft of the platform later this month, which will then be considered by another platform committee.

Former Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown worked on the drafting committee in 2008. He said that while the nominee is not bound to what the platform committees develop, the exercise is still important for the party.

"The platform isn't necessarily just for the next administration," he said, "but it's for the party generally to shape our vision."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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