Cummings’ mentorship guided generations of Baltimore leadership

When Congressman Elijah Cummings wrote a personal letter to the White House in 2013 recommending Keenen Geter for an internship there, he noted Geter’s “passion for public service.”

Geter, now 28 and a member of the advance team for Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, wasn’t surprised. Passion was always part of the message when Cummings spoke with those he mentored — especially young black men from Baltimore like Geter, who is from Park Heights.


“He would tell me, ‘Keenen, through your pain, you will find your passion, and through your passion, you will find your purpose,’ ” Geter said after learning of Cummings’ death. “He understood that as a congressman, as an African American male, it was almost his duty, his responsibility, to care for our young people in Baltimore City."

“He said you can do anything and be anything you set your mind to.”


As tributes have poured in for Cummings, who died early Thursday, many of them made mention of what could be Cummings’ most lasting legacy: not of congressman or House Oversight chairman or inquisitor to President Donald Trump, but of mentor and guide.

Cummings, 68, was a titan and kingmaker, in the same vein as other great civil rights leaders and black political leaders, not only for a generation of legislators and politicians in Maryland and throughout the halls of Congress, but also for an army of young men and women with aspirations to change Baltimore or reach beyond it, those who loved him said.

“If you’ve grown up in Baltimore and you’re of my age, all of us have come into his orbit because we were his orbit. Young people in Baltimore were where he put his time and effort,” said Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott, 35. “Before there was Barack Obama, there was Elijah Cummings.”

So influential was Cummings that, when Scott was elected council president in May, he said, Cummings was the first person he called.

“He was who I looked up to and emulated and wanted to build myself after,” Scott said.

Cummings often spoke of leaving the world better for generations to come, and his interest in offering a guiding hand to younger people reflected that.

“He was very concerned about the next generation of leadership and the generation after that, and he understood his role and his power in developing and cultivating those next two generations,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy, the longtime Baltimore lawyer who represented the family of Freddie Gray after the young man died of injuries suffered in police custody, sparking unrest in 2015.

Cummings took to the streets as rioting and looting broke out in the city, urging calm and helping restore the peace.


“The night of the disturbances themselves was the most critical time that he had that calming influence — on not just the city, but on the state,” Murphy said. “His reliable maturity had a calming effect on everyone.”

Since his death, the great scope of Cummings’ influence, on his own generation and on the next, became ever more clear.

“Chairman Cummings was a giant: a universally respected leader who brought profound insight, commitment, and moral fortitude to Congress,” tweeted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leader among the nation’s next generation of progressive Democratic lawmakers. “His guidance and vision was an enormous gift. I will forever cherish his example.”

Obama, too, gave a nod to Cummings’ impact on the next generation in his own statement on Cummings’ death.

“May his example inspire more Americans to pick up the baton and carry it forward in a manner worthy of his service," Obama wrote.

Many elected leaders across Baltimore said they have long been inspired by Cummings, whose combined political popularity and experience made him a sought-after endorsement before elections and an even more valued guide after them. Cummings, who often pointed to the importance of strong mentors in his own life, always rose to the occasion, they said.


"He would tell me, ‘Keenen, through your pain, you will find your passion, and through your passion, you will find your purpose.’ ”

—  Keenen Geter, now 28 and a member of the advance team for Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign

City Councilwoman Shannon Sneed said she always referred to Cummings as her “godfather in politics.”

“On our many conversations over the phone or in your office the words of wisdom and your honesty has and will always play a vital role in my continued development," Sneed wrote on Twitter.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan Pratt said Cummings was “the embodiment of serving the people, having been a leader, innovator, and mentor whose commitment is legendary.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said she looked to Cummings for political guidance on many difficult occasions because of his deep wisdom. He was the first person she called after deciding to charge six officers in Gray’s arrest because of her trust in him. She last reached out to him Wednesday, in a text message, to tell him she planned to name an award after him — the “Elijah Cummings Spirit and Purpose Award.”

“He was a mentor and a friend and a trusted adviser to me,” Mosby said. “I absolutely see that the legacy that he left is one that those who he’s mentored have to roll up our sleeves and commit ourselves to — to the work and the people that he loved, and that was the people of Baltimore.”

Scott said Cummings took his duty to represent Baltimore seriously, and always remained in the city — never moving out — so that he could stay close to its residents, especially the kids.


“When people ask me why I still live where I live, why I still shop where I shop, still go to the same Planet Fitness, still play basketball in the same neighborhood ... well, I watched that from Congressman Cummings. He didn’t leave Baltimore,” Scott said. “He is not just a man from Baltimore. He is of Baltimore, and all of us can learn from a person like that.”

Former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith interned in Cummings’ Baltimore office in 2013, the year the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Smith said he sought the internship because, after years of being taught to cherish his vote, he wanted to understand what a congressman did. He said he was impressed by Cummings’ constituent service and the commitment of his staff.

Smith, who retired from football in September, stayed in touch with Cummings, visiting with him as recently as last month, and felt proud watching his mentor speak out against the Trump administration.

“For me, as a young man, to have another positive, African American male that I could look to, and see with my own eyes what he was doing, and follow his lead, it means a lot,” Smith said. “You realize everyone doesn’t think that way or operate that way. So people that are like Congressman Cummings, you definitely cherish it.”

Cody Dorsey, now a 23-year-old master of politics candidate at University College Dublin in Ireland, sought Cummings’ mentorship, after becoming the student commissioner on the Baltimore school board in 2013. Cummings readily agreed and gave Dorsey his personal cellphone number.

Cummings “told me to call or text him anytime — and he meant it,” Dorsey wrote in an email from Ireland on Thursday.

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“He would often tell me that he wasn’t just my mentor, but my ‘mirror,’ ” Dorsey wrote. “He wanted to reflect parts of me that I could not see in myself. He was one of my champions.”

Maurice Marshall Jr., 17, of West Baltimore said he considers himself lucky to have met the congressman when Cummings spoke to a group of YouthWorks interns at the University of Maryland, Baltimore in July.

Cummings told the kids that their unique experiences in life were their power.

“My point is that life will throw you some curves. You will go through some pain and you will be hurt at times. You take your pain and turn it into a passion to do your purpose. And so, I beg you, don’t curse your experience living in West Baltimore or wherever you live,” Cummings said then. “I come by here to encourage you to be all that God meant for you to be. It is so very, very important.”

Marshall, a senior at Green Street Academy with dreams of going off to college and becoming a software engineer, said the great man’s message resonated with him deeply.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, here’s a person who comes from the same place I come from,’ ” Marshall said. “It’s really great to see success like that. It shows you that nothing is stopping you and you have the choice to go and become something great, just like Elijah Cummings did.”


Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.