The Sun has never awarded the Marylander of the Year designation posthumously, and we’re saddened that is the circumstance we find ourselves in for 2019. This title is bestowed on Elijah Cummings, who died in October, not as a marker of his lifetime achievements, however; though they are many. It is an appreciation of the specific work the congressman from Baltimore performed and the efforts he undertook this year.
Even as his health quietly faded, his national profile grew, starting in January, when he assumed the chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and continuing throughout 2019, as he fought for his district and his vision for democracy. Of course, not everyone approves of the Democrats’ beliefs, goals or focus, but few would argue that Cummings’ motivation was anything other than his own moral compass and a deep love for his country and state. He never stopped advocating for Maryland, and he maintained a respectful level of civility, even when condemning the actions of others or being attacked himself.
"When we're dancing with the angels,” he said at hearing in February, “the question will be asked: ‘In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?'"
Though he couldn’t have known the angels would come for him before the year was out, Elijah Cummings certainly must have been secure in the knowledge that he did all he could to stand up for his beliefs. We are.
After his death on Oct. 17th, tributes poured in chronicling the many admirable details of his many years. We offer up this tribute to the last one, the final public year of a public figure who unfailingly put others first.
As a member of the newly installed majority party and the new chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, one of the first public appearances Cummings made was at the War Memorial building in downtown Baltimore to talk about House legislation and the importance of supporting citizens. "We’ve got to lift up the morale of Americans, " he said, “to realize that this [democracy] works.”
Later in the month, Cummings and other House members launched a sweeping investigation of the pharmaceutical industry’s escalating prices, yet Cummings still found time to search for solutions to Baltimore violence at a roundtable held at an Upton elementary school.
At the end of a long day of partisan back and forth during testimony by the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Cummings gave closing remarks that showed him to be a model of decorum and leadership for Congress and the country. "I’m sitting here listening to all this, and it’s very painful, very painful, " he said, addressing Mr. Cohen. "We are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.” He urged his fellow lawmakers to focus on giving future generations a democracy better than ours, “so they can do better than we did.”
Cummings, whose nephew was fatally shot while attending law school in Virginia in 2011, appeared in Annapolis to advocate for the creation of an armed Johns Hopkins University police force in Baltimore to help protect students and residents. “I’ve come to you to beg you to do something. I’m begging you,” he said. “Blood will be spilled. … I could not sleep unless I came to share these thoughts with you.”
That same month, he sought information regarding a census citizenship question, and he united black and Jewish teens at a social justice summit held at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. “We have a tendency to categorize people. We say, ‘I’m not going to hang with you because you’re black. I’m not going to hang with you because you’re Jewish,'” he told the young people, hoping they’d learn from one another “what it feels like to be in somebody else’s shoes."
Cummings pledged to work closely with Amtrak, which agreed to help transform the area around Baltimore’s historic Penn Station “to ensure that this project reflects our local priorities, creates opportunities for local minority- and women-owned businesses, and enables Penn Station to be both an inviting gateway and an economic engine for our city.”
A few weeks later, he reflected on the importance of diversity in relationships during the final installment of “Courageous Conversations," an interfaith, month-long event that brought Howard County residents together to discuss religion, race and racism. He also released a report on the high price of insulin in America compared with other countries and respectfully urged Baltimore’s former mayor, in the middle of a scandal, to recognize that city leadership must be beyond reproach. She eventually resigned.
Cummings introduced legislation to provide $100 billion in new funding to tackle the nation’s opioid epidemic and the staggering number of overdose deaths. "Families across this nation — in red states, blue states and purple states, in big cities, suburbs and rural areas — are struggling with the devastating consequences of this generational crisis that claims 192 lives every single day, " he said.
And in a commencement address, he urged new Morgan State University graduates to “go out and stand up for this democracy” and to never “let anybody define you. You must define yourselves."
Cummings and his committee continued its efforts to derail the census citizenship question, which he and others feared would under-count minority voters by reducing participation in immigrant communities, and were rewarded when the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the question later in the month. He also continued to fight for his version of democracy in America, approving a subpoena to compel the appearance of White House counsel Kellyanne Conway. “This is about right and wrong. This is about the core principle of our democracy that no one in this country is above the law, not even Kellyanne Conway,” Cummings said.
Cummings requested an investigation into why the Trump administration decided, after years of planning, not to build a new FBI headquarters in the D.C. suburbs, which could have brought thousands of jobs to Maryland. And after the president told four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to other countries, he strongly denounced the words as “racist” and “xenophobic,” recalling what it was like to be “treated like less than a dog," growing up in segregated Baltimore. “I heard the same kind of chants, ‘Go home, ' ‘You don’t belong here, ' and they called us the N-word over and over again,” he said.
Two weeks later, the president deemed Cummings a “brutal bully” for criticizing conditions on the Southern Border and called Cummings majority-black 7th District, which encompasses parts of Baltimore city and county and Howard County, “disgusting, rat and rodent infested.” Cummings supporters flocked to Twitter to decry the characterization, launching the hashtag topic “#WeAreBaltimore,” which quickly rose to No. 1 that day.
Cummings responded to the president’s criticism with his usual civility, inviting him to visit Baltimore. "I’d love for him to sit down and talk to the doctors at Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland and see the beautiful neighborhoods of our city, and I’d be happy to have him, " Cummings said at a community event near his Baltimore home. "Come to Baltimore — do not just criticize us, " he said. “Come to Baltimore and I promise you, you will be welcomed. I promise you we will give you every bit of hospitality we’ve got.”
And then it was back to business. Later in the month, he attended a rally in Baltimore against gun violence and held a forum on childhood trauma.
Cummings recorded a video message praising the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “OrchKids” program for city school students, played as the BSO performed at a West Baltimore church. Later in the month, we learned he’d undergone a medical procedure that would keep him from his chairman duties.
Elijah Cummings died at the age of 68 on Oct. 17.
In November, public impeachment hearings began in the House Intelligence Committee, continuing the work Cummings started, and in December, two articles of impeachment were approved and later passed against President Donald Trump. Republicans largely condemn the actions. And Democrats support them; Elijah Cummings likely would have as well, but not because of his love of party — because of his love of country and the ideal he urged us to achieve.
For his many efforts to make us “better than this,” Elijah Cummings is the 2019 Marylander of the Year.