Baltimore Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings Dies At 68

Associated Press
October 17, 2019 - 6:51 am

Associated Press

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WCBS 880/AP) — Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings died early Thursday due to complications from longstanding health challenges, his congressional office said. He was 68.

A sharecropper’s son, Cummings became the powerful chairman of a U.S. House committee that investigated President Donald Trump, and was a formidable orator who passionately advocated for the poor in his black-majority district, which encompasses a large portion of Baltimore as well as more well-to-do suburbs.

As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led multiple investigations of the president’s governmental dealings, including probes in 2019 relating to the president’s family members serving in the White House.

Trump responded by criticizing the Democrat’s district as a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” The comments came weeks after Trump drew bipartisan condemnation following his calls for Democratic congresswomen of color to get out of the U.S. “right now,” and go back to their “broken and crime-infested countries.”

Cummings replied that government officials must stop making “hateful, incendiary comments” that only serve to divide and distract the nation from its real problems, including mass shootings and white supremacy.

“Those in the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior,” Cummings said in a speech at the National Press Club.

On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted his "condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader." The brief tweet made no reference to past feuds.

The president also issued a proclamation ordering U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff "as a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding public service" of Cummings. 
 
Trump's order applies to the White House and federal buildings and properties, including military posts and ships, across the nation and overseas. It's in effect through Friday, Oct. 18.

Cummings’ long career spanned decades in Maryland politics. He rose through the ranks of the Maryland House of Delegates before winning his congressional seat in a special election in 1996 to replace former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who left the seat to lead the NAACP.

Cummings was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008. And by 2016, Cummings was the senior Democrat on the House Benghazi Committee, which he said was “nothing more than a taxpayer-funded effort to bring harm to Hillary Clinton’s campaign” for president.

Obama said he and Michelle "are heartbroken'' over the passing of their friend, whom he called "steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives'' and "steadfast in his pursuit of truth, justice, and reconciliation.''
 
Throughout his career, Cummings used his fiery voice to highlight the struggles and needs of inner-city residents. He was a firm believer in some much-debated approaches to help the poor and addicted, such as needle exchange programs as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS.

A key figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry, Cummings had been hoping to return to Congress after a medical procedure he said would only keep him away for a week. His statement then didn’t detail the procedure. He had previously been treated for heart and knee issues.

Cummings' committee, authorized to investigate virtually any part of the federal government, is one of three conducting the House impeachment probe of Trump. Cummings was among the three chairmen to sign a letter seeking documents into the formal inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, the former vice president. The committees have issued subpoenas of witnesses in the face of the Trump administration's refusal to cooperate with the impeachment probe and have jointly been meeting behind closed doors to hear testimony.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a veteran House Democrat from New York, will for now take over leadership of the House oversight committee, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the decision publicly.

His constituents began mourning shortly after his death at 2:45 a.m. on Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The Baltimore archdiocese tweeted that Cummings “generously shared his God-given gifts and talents w/the people of his beloved city, state and nation for so many years. We give thanks for his dedicated service and pray for the repose of his soul.”

His widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of Maryland's Democratic Party, said in a statement: "He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation's diversity was our promise, not our problem."

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis says that with the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, Americans "have lost a great leader at a time of crisis in our democracy.''  Lewis credits the powerful chairman of the House Oversight committee with leading the nation to a place where it's understood that reform is urgently required. 

New York Congressman Gregory Meeks tells WCBS 880 that Cummings was one of the first people to befriend him when he joined Congress. "He was full of passion, full of focus, full of trying to make sure that tomorrow would be better than today," Meeks said.

Leading Democrats in the presidential race are also mourning Cummings' death. 
 
Joe Biden said the Maryland congressman's life was "defined by the love of his community and a fierce commitment to ensuring truth wins over power.'' 
 
Elizabeth Warren called him a dear friend, and said "good people everywhere will miss his rumbling voice, his kind heart, and his deep conviction that every human being has worth.'' 

Bernie Sanders said it was an honor to work closely with him over the years, and that "his integrity and moral vision for his community and the country were extraordinary.'' 
 
Pete Buttigieg called on Americans to "honor him by insisting on justice and integrity in leadership, as he did.'' And Kamala Harris said ``we lost a giant today,'' describing Cummings as a "protector of democracy.'' 

Cummings was born on Jan. 18, 1951. In grade school, a counselor told Cummings he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly, and he would never fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.

“I was devastated,” Cummings told The Associated Press in 1996, shortly before he won his seat in Congress. “My whole life changed. I became very determined.”

It steeled Cummings to prove that counselor wrong. He became not only a lawyer, but one of the most powerful orators in the statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first black House speaker pro tem. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.

Cummings was quick to note the differences between Congress and the Maryland General Assembly, which has long been controlled by Democrats.

“After coming from the state where, basically, you had a lot of people working together, it’s clear that the lines are drawn here,” Cummings said about a month after entering office in Washington in 1996.

Cummings chaired the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003 to 2004, employing a hard-charging, explore-every-option style to put the group in the national spotlight.

He cruised to big victories in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, which had given Maryland its first black congressman in 1970 when Parren Mitchell was elected.