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Government & Politics

The Enormity of Elijah Cummings

The late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) speaks to reporters in Annapolis in 2019. The state is holding a vote-by-mail election to replace him. File photo

The Maryland political world has been rocked by three premature deaths in the past 17 months.

One reordered a gubernatorial election and signaled a changing of the guard in one of the state’s biggest jurisdictions. One shocked and saddened the entire State House community, just as the General Assembly session was entering its final day.

But the recent deaths of Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D) and state House speaker Michael E. Busch (D) do not – cannot – match the impact of Congressman Elijah E. Cummings’ death Thursday at the age of 68.

Simply put, Cummings was a political leader like no other, whose work had a depth and sweep uncommon in today’s fast-moving, superficial and angry political universe.

Cummings was a national leader, thrust into the middle of some of America’s most emotional and politically toxic debates. But he was also a local leader, known and beloved in every corner of his diverse district – as passionate about helping a young inner-city child as he was about doing battle with the president of the United States.

Cummings’ death was national news Thursday, and Baltimore radio coverage ran around the clock. There wasn’t a political leader in the country, including President Trump, who didn’t weigh in to express admiration and sorrow.

By now, Cummings’ story is well-told: The son of sharecroppers who came to Baltimore, a special education student who struggled to read and learn, crediting white librarians with keeping him focused. He went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University and then earned a law degree from the University of Maryland. He became an advocate and attorney who enjoyed a long, successful career in state and national politics.

“He lived the American dream and he wanted it for everyone else,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday.

Maryland has experienced three high-profile political deaths in just over a year (two other political giants, former Gov. Harry R. Hughes and former state House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, also died this year, but they lived full lives and were out of office and the public eye for decades).

Kamenetz died at age 60 in May of 2018, six weeks before he was to compete in the Democratic primary for governor. Busch died this April following a variety of illnesses and invasive medical procedures. He was 72.

Both men cast long political shadows and their losses were immediately and emphatically felt.

Kamenetz was one of the smartest and most talented politicians in recent Baltimore County history, and Busch was the longest serving House speaker in Maryland history – a compassionate, big picture leader and an inspiration to his colleagues.

Both deaths shook their institutions to their core. But Cummings’ feels different – not just because his passing made national news, but because his impact on his city and on state and national politics was so profound.

It’s hard to find a fellow politician in any corner of the state whose life was not touched by Cummings. In fact, based on a quick survey of social media, it seems like every Marylander who was even remotely involved in politics has posed for a picture with Cummings.

The hole Cummings’ death leaves in the fabric of Maryland politics was immediately apparent Thursday night, at the Baltimore County Democratic Unity Dinner in Middle River.

Cummings’ name flashed repeatedly on a screen in the banquet hall, listed as one of the sponsors of the event. His wife, Maryland Democratic Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, was supposed to have delivered the Pledge of Allegiance, but she of course was absent.

The task fell instead to Baltimore County Democratic Chairwoman Tara Ebersole, who said words failed her.

“He’d want us to continue the fight,” she said, finally.

Delivering the invocation before the dinner, the Rev. Clare Petersberger of Towson Unitarian Universalist Church compared Cummings to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the 19th Century journalist and activist, and Alice Paul, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement.

“Congressman Cummings was a paragon of not being distracted by what divides us and of focusing instead on what unites us,” she said.

On Friday evening, Howard County leaders, led by County Executive Calvin Ball (D), will place a wreath in his honor in downtown Ellicott City, a community he helped recover after two floods of Biblical proportions.

Cummings lived in a tidy row house on Madison Avenue in Baltimore, just a stone’s throw from North Avenue, the epicenter of the unrest that wracked the city following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. The city’s many challenges are visible just a few hundred feet from Cummings’ pleasant block: a broken-down playground, burned out and abandoned homes, vacant lots, and evidence of the drug trade.

But this is where Cummings wanted to be, in close proximity to his neediest constituents – and he rushed home most nights after his blindingly busy days on Capitol Hill.

Cummings’ political work, on the national stage and at home, was chronicled extensively. On Thursday, pundits and colleagues called him a statesman.

But less well-known were some of his other activities – like leading a youth group to Israel every year to foster better relations between African-Americans and Jews, or serving on the Board of Regents of Morgan State University, or personally delivering constituents’ resumes to government offices and business leaders.

Cummings could summon outrage for an entire city and an entire nation when the moment demanded it, but he was also the community’s comforter-in-chief, with compassion to spare. When a staffer lost six of her children in a monstrous house fire a few years ago, the congressman grieved publicly, absorbing the family’s pain, calling on anyone who listened to provide help.

Cummings was famous for taking an interest in everyone he met and mentoring people from all walks of life. For aspiring African-American politicians – and for white ones, too – he was the ultimate role model.

“Before we had Barack Obama, we had Elijah Cummings,” City Council President Brandon M. Scott (D) said on WBAL’s “C4 Show” Thursday.

Chances are, Cummings’ funeral will take place at the 4,000-seat New Psalmist Baptist Church, where he worshiped weekly. But it could probably be held at a much bigger venue, and every seat would be filled.

“We all say none of us are irreplaceable in elected office,’ said state House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who had close ties to both Busch and Kamenetz. “But there will never be another Elijah Cummings.”

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The Enormity of Elijah Cummings