Fourth in a series of articles on candidates for the 7th Congressional District.
As she campaigns for her late husband’s seat in Congress, Elijah Cummings’ widow can’t help but be struck by the eagerness of his former constituents to share testimonials about the man who represented them for two decades.
“Oh, my God, yes,” says Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a public policy consultant and former Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman. “I mean, I can’t turn 3 feet without people telling me an Elijah story.”
Rockeymoore Cummings, 48, is happy to listen to their accounts — to have his long shadow loom over the race — and to detail why she is his rightful political heir, even as other candidates question her claim that he wanted her to succeed him.
Three months after his death, the campaign for the Feb. 4 special primary to fill the 7th Congressional District seat is partly a race to see who can most closely associate themselves with the late representative, who left a record of fighting for the needy and for Baltimore.
As Rockeymoore Cummings touts her credentials as a public policy professional, social justice advocate and former Capitol Hill staffer, she says her candidacy is tied to finishing tasks that her husband started.
“I’m my own person,” she said in a recent interview at her campaign headquarters on St. Paul Street in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood. On the windows are campaign signs emphasizing “MAYA” and “CUMMINGS,” with Rockeymoore in much smaller type.
“But when I say that Elijah and I fought in the trenches together, we were on one mind on a number of things — whether we’re talking about health care or prescription drugs. So it’s not a major struggle for me to say, ‘I will actually seek to finish his fight to reduce prescription drug costs.’”
Cummings, 68, died Oct. 17. He was chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of three committees that led the impeachment inquiry into Republican President Donald Trump. Twenty-four Democrats and eight Republicans are vying for their party’s nomination to represent the district, which includes parts of Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County.
Rockeymoore Cummings has said her husband told her he would like her to succeed him. “That was a discussion we had some months ago,” she said in November.
That didn’t settle the question of what Cummings would have wanted, which has become a campaign issue. His oldest daughter, Jennifer Cummings, said she never heard her father discuss who should follow him.
“No, he did not indicate that to me,” she said. “We were very close and talked about just about everything.”
She and her sister, Adia Cummings, are supporting the candidacy of Democrat Harry Spikes, an aide to the congressman for 15 years. Spikes said he believes that if Cummings had designated somebody to take the seat, he would have put it in writing.
Rockeymoore Cummings, a self-described “military brat" whose father is retired from the Air Force, was born in Texas and lived in towns across the U.S. and abroad while growing up. She has lived in Baltimore since before she married Cummings in 2008, she said.
She earned a doctorate in political science and says her experience in the private and public sectors — she has worked on a U.S. House committee, at the National Urban League, and as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York — helped prepare her for elected office.
Since 2005, she has run a consulting business helping philanthropic, governmental, and other organizations pursue social change. She also headed a related nonprofit.
She has had her own role in Maryland politics. In 2017, she began a run for governor but withdrew when her husband was hospitalized with a bacterial infection and had surgery. In December 2018, fellow Democrats elected her as chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, a position she held for nearly a year.
After she stepped down to run for Congress, state Sen. Cory V. McCray, then the state party’s acting chairman, wrote to Democratic State Central Committee members that he discovered “major areas of concern" pertaining to the organization’s finances, including “overspending” and lack of “fiscal constraints.” To right the organization’s fiscal health, McCray said he had begun canceling contracts with consultants and recommending other fiscal controls.
Rockeymoore Cummings countered McCray didn’t account for all of the party’s revenue and that she strategically invested in the party’s growth to strengthen it for the 2020 elections.
She also faced criticism — which she says was politically motivated — over the organization of her nonprofit. The Center for Global Policy Solutions, which she formed in 2012, sought to aid vulnerable populations through analysis and education. The tax-exempt center long shared office space, equipment and personnel with her for-profit consulting firm, Global Policy Solutions LLC, according to the candidate.
In May, a conservative watchdog group, the National Legal and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the Inernal Revenue Service alleging the nonprofit and the firm operated “almost as a single entity” in violation of federal rules.
Rockeymoore Cummings called the accusations “lies” and a “hit piece.”
A campaign spokesperson acknowledged there had been “accounting issues” with the nonprofit.
“Maya and her accountants worked together to address the errors,” the spokesperson said. The campaign did not respond to questions from The Baltimore Sun about what those errors were.
The nonprofit began shutting down after Rockeymoore Cummings announced her candidacy for governor in late 2017, said Viviana Abreu-Hernandez, chairwoman of the center’s board. "Funders tend not to support organizations that are perceived as too close to party politics,” Abreu-Hernandez said. The campaign said Rockeymoore Cummings donated about $145,000 to the nonprofit to settle outstanding debts.
During its roughly half-dozen years, the center had an impact on helping society understand important federal programs, said William Arnone, president of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan think tank.
Among its contributions, Arnone said, was a 2016 study demonstrating the critical role Social Security can play in reducing child poverty in homes with extended families. Rockeymoore Cummings is “one of the leaders in the field of social insurance,” he said.
As a candidate, she has been waging a campaign that has sometimes seemed wary of the news media. Her aides refused to say who was running the campaign, saying such information was private. Tucker Cavanagh, previously quoted as campaign manager, could not be reached for comment.
Abreu-Hernandez, who has known Rockeymoore Cummings since 1995, said the candidate has proven her character by overcoming the deaths of her mother and husband, taking a courageous step to safeguard her health, and finding the resolve to mount a congressional campaign.
At the time of her announcement, Rockeymoore Cummings disclosed she would soon have a preventative double mastectomy. She said her mother died from breast cancer in 2015, and her sister was diagnosed last year with the disease. Following the surgery, she was soon back campaigning.
She said her husband “wanted me to continue” the political battles they had fought together.
“Anybody who’s ever heard a public speech where he’s mentioned me — anybody who has met him where he’s talked about me — knows that he will tell you that he was very proud of me,” she said.
Coming Monday: Kweisi Mfume.
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings
Profession: Public policy consultant
Education: Master’s degree in political science, Prairie View A&M University; doctorate in political science, Purdue University.
Experience: Former state Democratic Party chairwoman; U.S. House committee staff; vice president of research and programs at Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; senior resident scholar at National Urban League; chief of staff to former Rep. Charles Rangel.