No public official ever wanted to be the one to speak after Rep. Elijah Cummings. He would talk about the most esoteric issues of the day with such eloquent prose that it was easy to forget you were at a press conference about health reform or taxes. When he finished, it wasn’t unusual for the next speaker to preface what they were about to say with the caveat that they would not match up to the statesman’s words. Cummings spoke like he was at the pulpit — likely the influence of his highly religious upbringing and daily family testimonials — and nobody was trying to compete. Ironic, given the fact that a counselor once told him he would never become an attorney because he wasn’t smart enough and didn’t speak well.
Cummings, who died early Thursday morning at the age of 68, used his verve and influential words to defend his native Baltimore and crusade for the less advantaged. He was a conscientious lawmaker well-versed on pressing issues and, most recently, a lead thorn in Donald J. Trump’s side. As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings’ impassioned and aggressive push for an investigation into President Trump’s finances drew a national spotlight.
Cummings was the son of sharecroppers, and, like many African American men of his generation, he had seen and experienced his share of injustices — including getting attacked while integrating a pool — without compromising his integrity or passion. Civil rights were at the core of his politics. He showed that it is not only OK, but necessary, to stand up for equality, regardless of how unpopular.
When unrest broke out in his West Baltimore neighborhood after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in 2015, his first inclination was to head out to the streets with a bullhorn to promote calm and call for peace. During Gray’s funeral, the congressman reminded people to remember the young man as a person and not just the voiceless face of police brutality and tragedy.
Fighting for black Baltimore was always at the forefront of his agenda. He took on Gov. Donald Schaefer in the ’80s to save the city’s black-owned Provident Hospital and constantly worked to counter efforts to undermine the city’s two black higher education institutions, Coppin State University and Morgan State University. His constituents voted for him year after year, and he supported them through efforts large and small, including annual job fairs and workshops on avoiding foreclosure when the housing bubble burst. He would sometimes reach into his own pocket to help those in need, and it was not uncommon to see him out in the neighborhoods. To his voters, he was one of them. He understood their plight and lot in life.
Lawmakers in today’s acrimonious political environment could learn a lot about working across the aisle from Cummings. In the chambers of the Maryland State House, where he first started his political career, and later on the U.S. House of Representatives’ floor, Cummings became known as a shrewd negotiator, but also someone who could and would compromise where warranted. You never had to wonder what the lawmaker with no patience for small talk was thinking or where he stood on an issue; straightforward and with integrity was how he preferred to operate. As a delegate, he made allies with former Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who selected Cummings as the first African American speaker pro tem. In Washington, his deal making helped secure plum committee positions and bring home transportation and other funding.
Even in taking on President Trump, Cummings’ statements were strong, but stately. He didn’t succumb to the juvenile name calling as the president did when describing Cumming’s beloved district, which includes roughly half of Baltimore as well as large swaths of Baltimore and Howard counties, as rat infested. In his response, Cummings didn’t name the president as he pleaded with the country to stop “using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior."
"A lot of people call me a bridge builder, but sometimes I feel like I’m the bridge itself, " he told The Sun shortly after winning his congressional seat. “I often become the bridge, so people can begin to concentrate on what they have in common as opposed to what differences they have.”
Many young politicians have benefited from his tutelage and willingness to reach out. Cummings thought it important to mentor and shape the next generation of lawmakers and pass on the political lessons he had learned. We expect some will try to fill the gap his death has left behind. The task will be hard,
Cummings spent his last days in a wheelchair and at times appeared to be in pain, but he somehow seemed taller than ever and his voice and message stronger than before. He didn’t let his illness disrupt his mission, we only wish he could have finished his work.
That counselor so many years ago gravely underestimated Cummings. We’re grateful he wasn’t cowed. His imprint on Maryland and the country will be felt for years to come.