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 as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, died at Gilchrist Hospice Care, a Johns Hopkins affiliate, at approximately 2:45 A.M., a spokeswoman said.
Cummings, who had been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks while under medical attention, had health issues in recent years. In 2017, he underwent an aortic valve replacement. The procedure, which aides described as minimally invasive in Cummings’ case, is used 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.
Cummings had not participated in a roll call vote since Sept. 11. His office said recently that he had undergone a medical procedure but the seriousness of his condition had not been known.
The committee he chaired, Oversight and Reform, is among three panels leading the impeachment inquiry of Trump, a Republican.
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.
“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.
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.
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 particularly 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.
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.”
Mr. Schmoke recalled the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and said, “The words in it applied to his life and career.”
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 blunt, passionate — 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.
Following his health problems in recent years, he used a wheelchair to get around and braced himself with a walker when he stood.
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, née Cochran, 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. His longtime mentor is Larry Gibson, the Baltimore attorney and author who was active in the 1960s civil rights movement.
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.
Cummings was an active member of New Psalmist Baptist Church — he was there habitually for an early service — and was married to Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who was elected chair of the Maryland Democratic Party in December 2018.