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Rep. Elijah Cummings, Baltimore civil rights advocate and leader in Trump impeachment inquiry, dies

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 10/17/2019 By Jeff Barker
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Video by WBAL TV Baltimore

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, a committee chairman known for his devotion to Baltimore and civil rights and for blunt and passionate speechmaking, died of longstanding health problems early Thursday morning, his office said. He was 68 years old.

The Democrat, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in his role as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, died while he was a patient of Gilchrist Hospice Care at approximately 2:45 a.m., a Cummings spokeswoman said.

“He was a towering figure in the Congress who could investigate, legislate and agitate, and this is why we all loved him,” said retired U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat.

Cummings had been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks while under medical attention. But his death came as a surprise as it was not publicly known he was in hospice care, when medical and other services are provided for people who are terminally ill. Cummings’ staff did not say why or when he was moved to hospice care.

Bishop Walter Thomas of New Psalmist Baptist Church, where Cummings worshiped for nearly 40 years, said he spoke with Cummings as he was going into hospice and said the congressman was there “for only a matter of hours.” Thomas declined to comment further, citing pastoral confidentiality.

Cummings had not participated in a House roll call vote since Sept. 11. He missed a key committee hearing in mid-September, and his office said then said he had undergone a medical procedure. Statements from the office suggested he would be back in a week or so, and then said he would return when the House came back Tuesday from a recess, but Cummings did not appear.

“I did not know he was this gravely ill,” said University of Maryland law professor and civil rights activist Larry Gibson, who knew Cummings for more than 50 years and said he spoke with him last week. “He would tell me I was his mentor. He was my brother, he was my friend.”

Cummings had other health issues in recent years. In 2017, he underwent a procedure to correct narrowing of the aortic valve in the heart. The surgery led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee infection, but he said this summer that his health was fine. Following his health problems, Cummings used a wheelchair to get around and braced himself with a walker when he stood.

According to state law, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan should soon issue a proclamation setting up a special primary election and a special general election to fill the vacancy. Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci, said Thursday morning that it wasn’t clear yet when that would happen.

The committee Cummings chaired, Oversight and Reform, is among three panels leading the impeachment inquiry of Trump, a Republican.

Under House rules, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York becomes acting chairwoman because she was second-ranking in seniority on the committee, said a senior Democratic leadership aide. A caucus process to elect a permanent chair has not yet been announced.

A former Maryland state delegate and trial attorney, Cummings became a national figure in 2019 as chairman of the committee. With Democrats assuming the House majority after the 2018 elections, he won the ability to demand documents related to Trump’s personal finances and policies, as well as possible abuses at federal agencies in the Trump administration.

Pundits had speculated before the change of power in the House that Cummings, who could be boisterous in his questioning of witnesses, might become a “nightmare” for Trump, a Republican.

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“Are we going to be the nightmare? It’s in the eyes of the beholder,” he told The Baltimore Sun before ascending to the chairmanship.

In a tweet Thursday, Trump sent his “warmest condolences” to Cummings’ family and friends and said: “I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”

Hogan called Cummings “a fierce advocate for civil rights and for Maryland for more than three decades. Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore City and working to improve people’s lives.”

Cummings clashed with the administration over a number of issues, including the high cost of prescription drugs, a longtime concern of his. His committee engaged in a protracted court fight with the administration over subpoenas — challenged by the president — of Trump’s personal and financial records.

Cummings said he had just a single one-on-one conversation with the president. It was in 2017 when both were working on plans to lower drug prices.

More: What they're saying about Cummings' death 

The Democrat recalled saying: “Mr. President, you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do — what present can we bring to generations unborn?”

Cummings said he then told Trump that “we don’t need to be doing mean things. We don’t need to be just representing 30-something percent of the people that like us. You need to represent all the people.”

Cummings resented Trump’s tweet over the summer of 2019 that four Democratic congresswomen of color should "go back” to other countries. He said it recalled the summer of 1962, when white mobs taunted and threw rocks and bottles at Cummings and other African American kids seeking to integrate the Riverside Park pool in South Baltimore.

“I don’t think these Republicans or Trump fully understand what it feels like to be treated like less than a dog,” Cummings told the Baltimore Sun.

More: What happens to Cummings' seat in Congress? 

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who is the senior member of Maryland’s congressional delegation, said Cummings’ loss “leaves an irreplaceable void in our hearts, in our Maryland and in our Congress. Quite possibly no elected official mattered so much to his constituents.”

“I feel as though I lost a member of my family,” said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. “We were that close. He cared about people and making life better for others.”

Former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley said Cummings “believed that children were the messengers to a future we’ll never see, and it is our responsibility to give our kids a better life.”

In July, Trump began a weeklong series of tweets and comments attacking the congressman, his hometown of Baltimore and his congressional district, which Trump called “rat and rodent infested.” Cummings chose not to respond directly but in a National Press Club speech decried “racist language” used by the nation’s leaders and urged them to “work together for the common good.”

“God has called me to this moment. I did not ask for it,” he said in the speech.

Cummings often told the story of how his mother had witnessed Americans harmed and beaten while seeking the right to vote.

“Her last words were ‘Do not let them take our votes away from us,’ ” he said.

Cummings was known for his booming — and sometimes intimidating — observations during committee hearings. He did not hesitate to tell witnesses when he thought they were dodging his pointed questions.

“I felt like you were trying to pull a fast one on me, I’ve got to be honest with you, man,” Cummings told U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in March during a hearing into how the Trump administration came to develop a census question — later withdrawn — about citizenship status. Ross said he had testified truthfully.

Cummings was born in 1951 and raised in Baltimore, where he continued to live. He was one of seven children of Robert Cummings Sr. and Ruth Elma Cummings, who were sharecroppers on land where their ancestors were enslaved. The couple moved to Baltimore in the late 1940s.

As a child, Cummings struggled in elementary school and was assigned to special education courses. However, after showing promise in high school at City College, he won Phi Beta Kappa honors at Howard University in Washington. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law and passed the state bar in 1976.

After graduating from law school, Cummings joined a small Baltimore law firm and later set up his own practice, pooling expenses with two other lawyers. He soon transitioned to his second aspiration as a public servant.

In 1982, with the support of several established city officials, Cummings ran for state delegate and won. He served in the Maryland General Assembly for 14 years and became the first African American in Maryland history to be named speaker pro tem.

In late 1995, Cummings decided to run for Maryland’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House after Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced he would resign to become the head of the NAACP. Cummings served as a congressman since 1996.

“Common law and experience teach us that politics change people — but Elijah was a person who changed politics — he put a human face on it — he made it real,” Mfume said.

As he rose to political prominence, Cummings struggled with finances. For two winters as a congressman, he said, he lived without heat. He told The Sun in 1999 that was in part because he was helping to support three children: two daughters and a son.

His daughters graduated from Howard, Cummings’ alma mater. He posted a photo in 2016 in honor of his youngest’s graduation day, saying on Twitter: “I was so proud to watch my daughter, Adia, walk across the stage."

Cummings was an active member of New Psalmist Baptist Church and was married to Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was elected chair of the Maryland Democratic Party in December 2018. 

“It’s been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey,” his wife said in a statement. “I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly.”

Thomas, longtime pastor of New Psalmist, said he was waiting to hear from Rockeymoore Cummings on funeral plans, but expected the service would be held in the 4,000-seat sanctuary.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly, McKenna Oxenden, Jonathan M. Pitts, Fredrick N. Rasmussen, Lillian Reed and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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