By Brian Witte, Associated Press
BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings died early Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital due to complications from longstanding health challenges, his congressional office said. He was 68.
Congressmen Dwight Evans and Brendan Boyle, both Democrats who represent large parts of Philadelphia in the U.S. House, reacted to the news with sadness and fond memories.
“I will not forget what he has meant, not just to me personally, not just to Maryland, but to this country,” said Third District Congressman Dwight Evans.
Evans is the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Pennsylvania, and he says he knew Cummings for many years.
They both started in state legislatures and represented districts with similar challenges. In recent months, he’d had a heartfelt moment with the longtime public servant when he thanked him for his leadership.
“He was always a fighter,” Evans said, “and I wanted him to know that I — and this is the first time that I was in the same body with him — and I wanted him to know that: I care for you and I love you for all that you have tried to do.”
Second District Congressman Brendan Boyle once worked with Cummings on the powerful House Oversight Committee.
“I loved Elijah, and I’m so sad he passed away,” Boyle said.
He says the longtime leader welcomed him warmly and that he worked on both sides of the aisle.
“One of the people he got along with quite well was the head of the Freedom Caucus, who is very conservative and is a Trump ally, yet Elijah was able to forge a friendship with him,” he recalled.
Both Boyle and Evans say his leadership will be missed.
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.
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 continued his rise in Congress. In 2016, he 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.
Cummings was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.
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.
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 Maryland House of Delegates, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become House speaker pro tem, the first black delegate to hold the position. 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.