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Since the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a sign that bore his name has been changed to reflect the vacant office.
Since the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a sign that bore his name has been changed to reflect the vacant office. (Jeff Barker)

The phones still ring in the Capitol Hill office, the walls remain covered with awards and fading photographs, and buzzers continue to signal votes on the House floor.

But the nameplate near the door — “REPRESENTATIVE Elijah E. Cummings” in gold — is gone. Draped in black the day he died, it has been replaced by a sign reading “Office of the 7th Congressional District of Maryland.”

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Still-grieving staff members arrive for work in the mornings, but with the office officially classified as “interim vacant” there are strict limits on the tasks they can perform.

Five weeks after the Baltimore congressman’s death, his former office is in a kind of limbo necessitated by federal law and House rules. When a member dies, resigns or is expelled, the office must be supervised by the Clerk of the House. The staff can’t cast votes on the district’s behalf or advocate for their former boss’s policy positions, although they can still help constituents and answer their questions. The rationale is that unelected staff shouldn’t have much authority in the period before a new representative is elected.

It all leaves the district’s Washington staff in the disorienting position of being located in the halls of power without having a voice. It’s as if a long-familiar brand — Cummings was a Baltimore icon and committee chairman with a distinctive, booming voice — has become generic.

Cummings was chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, one of three committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The Democrat’s priorities included trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs, advocating for civil rights and upgrading public transit, which he said was critical to Baltimoreans.

The staff is permitted to answer questions about his bills but can’t seek additional sponsors or otherwise promote his agenda. The office restrictions will remain in place until the new member is elected in April to serve the remaining nine months of his term.

Staff members say they take solace in continuing to help district residents access government programs and navigate federal agencies. Constituent service work is hardly glamorous, but Cummings and his staff were known for it.

Cummings “was very, very, very constituent-service oriented, so all of the employees have remained in place and some have commented that they are doing it to continue his legacy,” said Vernon Simms, the congressman’s longtime chief of staff.

Continuing to work, staff members say, is a sort of therapy because it provides a continuing link to Cummings, who served 24 years in the House.

“We all are grieving an unfathomable loss, but we continue to work and serve the constituents of Maryland’s 7th District as Congressman Cummings would have wanted us to do,” office communications director Trudy Perkins said in a statement.

With the emotions surrounding Cummings’ death still raw, Perkins declined to be interviewed and requested that staff members not be asked how they are coping.

The congressman’s Rayburn House Office Building suite remains mostly as it was — the walls crammed with photos of Cummings with dignitaries, and a framed poster of Baltimore’s skyline below the heading: “City with a soul.”

At one staff member’s desk is a printed directory of Capitol offices and phone numbers, and — nearby — a laminated pass issued by U.S. Capitol Police to view Cummings lying in state in National Statuary Hall on Oct. 24. Cummings was the first African American member of Congress to lie in state in the Capitol.

Cummings had a rare form of cancer called thymic carcinoma when he died Oct. 17 at 68.

The 21 staff members are spread over offices in Washington, the city of Baltimore, and Baltimore and Howard counties.

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“They’re still working. Their commitment was to Mr. Cummings but also to the people of the city and the district,” said former Ravens and University of Maryland football player Torrey Smith, who interned for Cummings in 2013, attended the funeral, and recently visited staff in the Baltimore office.

“It’s emotional,” Smith said. “That’s a man that meant a lot to them. Imagine a brother, a mentor, a father figure. He wasn’t just their boss. He wouldn’t have been able to carry out the things he did if it wasn’t for his team.”

Fellow oversight committee member Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said Cummings was beloved partly because he paid attention to and mentored staff and junior members. “This is obviously heartbreaking for the staff,” Raskin said.

One of Cummings’ longtime staff members, Harry Spikes, told about 4,000 mourners at the Oct. 25 funeral at New Psalmist Baptist Church that the congressman would want him to tell the rest of the staff: “I could not have been the leader without you.”

Three busloads of U.S. House members joined current and former staff at the funeral. “None of us have recovered,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who became acting chairwoman of the oversight panel after Cummings’ death. “He was a unifying and positive force.”

Funeral services for late U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) at the New Psalmist Baptist Church on October 25, 2019 in Baltimore.

Spikes worked for the congressman for 15 years, Perkins for 17 and Simms for Cummings’ entire 24-year House career.

Spikes said his roles for Cummings included serving as district director as well as “bodyguard, mechanic, adviser, driver, chef … and most importantly, friend.”

Spikes has left the staff, Simms said, and is part of a large field of Democrats and Republicans running for the seat. A special primary election is scheduled for Feb. 4, with a general election April 28 to fill the rest of Cummings’ term.

Among the other Democrats running are former Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the congressman’s widow; former national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume; and three state legislators — Maryland House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch of Baltimore, state Sen. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore, and Del. Terri L. Hill, a physician from Columbia.

The Republican candidates include Kimberly Klacik, who runs a nonprofit and is a member of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee; former 2nd Congressional District candidate Liz Matory; and grassroots activist and businesswoman Reba Hawkins.

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The 7th District staff isn’t permitted to back or work with any of the candidates.

But Simms said he wants the public to know that the office is open.

Since Cummings’ death, the staff continues to participate in community association meetings and work with boards and commissions Cummings served on, such as one looking at Penn Station’s redevelopment and another overseeing the Baltimore School for the Arts.

On Dec. 2, the 7th District office will host a “How to Pay for College” seminar at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center.

Sometime soon, the photographs, papers and other office items will be cataloged and donated to Howard University, Cummings’ alma mater. Among his favorite items was a collection of stamps honoring African American leaders. Simms said he also loved an art project created years ago when “young children who may have had HIV put their handprints on a picture.”

Staff members declined to speculate on where they will go once a new member is in place.

Since House members must run for reelection every two years, Simms said Congress is naturally transitory. It’s a place accustomed to turnover.

“The nature of the environment is that they had to think of what else they wanted to do,” Simms said.

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