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U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings spoke at Freddie Gray’s funeral asking whether people "saw him" before he died.

Thursday, I woke up to the tragic news that my friend and mentor Elijah Cummings is no longer with us. I have been fearing this moment for some time, and I hoped that Elijah would follow in the footsteps of his namesake: Elijah, the prophet of the Old Testament, was a miracle worker, and I prayed that a miracle would restore my friend to good health.

But now my heart is broken. Elijah Cummings was the moral compass of Maryland politics. He was the conscience of Congress. And he reminded us regularly that the test of a man is not how much he helps himself, but how much he helps those less fortunate.

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House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings died Thursday morning at the age of 68.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings died Thursday morning at the age of 68. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Elijah passed that test with flying colors. In Baltimore, I had the honor of working alongside him as he dedicated his life to the critical issues of our time. I saw firsthand his commitment to improving the lives of children and families in his community. Together, we helped lead the fight to combat the lead paint epidemic. And we worked to promote justice and expand opportunity across our state.

He took that same dedication and ferocity for justice to the halls of Congress. He was a titan on the House Oversight Committee. He helped save the Fair Housing Act. And in these trying times, he urged Americans not to let democracy become a spectator sport.

“When we’re dancing with the angels,” he said earlier this year, “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?”

Elijah never stayed on the sidelines. He refused to stay silent.

Elijah believed in the promise of Baltimore more than anyone. He believed in the promise of America and its people. And just as he was there for his constituents, Elijah was also there for me when I needed him. When I was subjected to partisan fire, he always had my back. When I needed a partner, he was always ready to get to work. When I served on the board of CASA de Maryland, he was one of our biggest supporters. He never hesitated to condemn inhumanity wherever he saw it. He always stood up and spoke out – whether it was advocating for children who had been separated from their families or Dreamers who deserved the chance to stay in the country they call home.

He understood that Maryland and America are at their best when we come together to help people. He understood the importance of building coalitions. He understood that we all succeed only when we all succeed.

Wherever he went, his North Star was helping people, especially those in the shadows. And his legacy runs deep – from the neighborhoods of Baltimore to the halls of the House.

I woke up on the morning of his death with a mix of grief and gratitude — grief for what we’ve lost; gratitude for all he gave us. Elijah Cummings was one of a kind. He was a man of great conscience and character. A man who never faltered in the face of injustice, who never backed down from fighting for what was right. He leaves us with a broken heart but a better world.

Tom Perez (Twitter: @TomPerez) is a Maryland resident and chair of the Democratic National Committee.

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