“We are better than this.”
Elijah Cummings said that over and over again, urging his fellow Americans and his fellow Baltimoreans to believe it — and to be it.
The U.S. congressman from Maryland, who died early Thursday morning at 68, was a long-time warrior for justice, truly a great man. He spoke truth to power even as a member of the power class. And the Democrat was not above pleading, with rival Republicans or constituents, for what he knew was right.
He chose politics and public life because he wanted a better country, a better city. Immersed in the complex problems of both, he kept his eyes on the prize all through his career. As a member of Congress, with oversight of government operations at a range of levels, Cummings was in the role of examiner, and what he examined was usually bad — from incompetence by bureaucrats to price gouging by corporations to the abuses of power of the executive branch. And so his words were often aspirational, uttered while mired in mud, yet pointing us toward a mountaintop.
He knew what he wanted, and he knew what he did not want.
He did not want the children of migrants separated from their parents at the border. “We are better than this,” he said.
He wanted the president to be civil, courageous, kind and honest. He wanted the president to abide by the Constitution.
“We are better than this. We really are," Cummings said in February, after Michael Cohen described his sordid undertakings as the president’s one-time lawyer. “As a country, we are so much better than this.”
When Donald Trump first took office, Cummings was the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He expressed grave concerns that the new president could be in conflict with the emoluments clause of the Constitution. The clause bars any official from accepting salary, gifts or profit from a foreign power. Cummings believed Trump had to turn all assets into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest and accusations of corruption.
"We have to guard the democracy," Cummings said. "If we had a Democrat as president, who owned 111 companies in 18 countries, I'd go to that president and say, 'Look, you gotta deal with this.'"
Cummings wanted Republicans to help him convince Trump to recognize the law, to divest, to rise to the ethical demands of the presidency — to, essentially, be “better than this.”
"I want to be very careful about this and approach it in a bipartisan way,” he told me. “I want to include Republicans and Democrats."
But, of course, that did not happen. The super-partisanship of Congress long frustrated him, especially when he believed Republicans on the oversight committee were abusing their investigative powers to embarrass and harass Obama administration officials.
In 2014, during a hearing on the practices of the Internal Revenue Service, Cummings challenged an abrupt adjournment by Darrell Issa, the committee’s Republican chairman. Issa rudely cut off Cummings’ microphone. I was listening in my car when it happened, and Cummings’ booming voice echoed in the hearing room. He continued to address the hearing and he was incredulous that Issa would shut off his microphone.
“We are better than this!” Cummings shouted.
Back home in Baltimore, he was just as aspirational. Baltimore could be so much better than it is, he said, if we could just get the schools up to speed, just get more kids into summer jobs, find employment for ex-offenders coming home from prison. He sponsored job fairs every year. He used to call me to suggest subjects for the column, and they were always about people or programs that were already quietly trying to make Baltimore a better city.
As you might imagine, his tone was profoundly sad when we spoke of the violence in the city and the loss of young lives, in particular. "I've often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see,” he said. “But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see. There's something wrong with that picture."
He repeated those words at Freddie Gray’s funeral in April of 2015, a tense and depressing time in Baltimore. On the day of the west-side rioting, and the days following, Cummings was on the streets, talking to hundreds of people, reminding them that we are better than this.
In recent years, of course, there were health issues, but while he might have lost a step, Cummings never lost his passion. As bad as things have been in Baltimore since the spring of 2015, with the persistent violence, he never lost his belief in something better.
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And people who saw him on the big stage in Washington or on the sidewalks of West Baltimore understood that about him. They understood him to be a righteous man and a fighter, someone who chose politics and public service because he believed in the possible, believed we could be so much better than we are.