Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., a powerful politician who spent more than 20 years in Congress and 16 in the Maryland House of Delegates, is being remembered as a politician with a moral compass who worked tirelessly for his constituents.
Cummings, who had been in failing health, died early Thursday at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Baltimore. He was 68.
In Congress, Cummings chaired the House Oversight and Reform Committee and was a key figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. He represented the 7th District congressional seat, encompassing parts of Baltimore City and Howard County, since the late 1990s.
His death was announced in a statement from his office early Thursday. The statement said he died at 2:45 a.m. from “complications concerning long-standing health challenges.”
His wife, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who chairs the Maryland Democratic Party, said Cummings will be remembered for improving the lives of others, standing up for his community and protecting democracy.
She released this statement:
“Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility. 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. It’s been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she is “devastated” by the death of her “brother in Baltimore,” and had ordered the flag to fly at half-staff over the U.S. Capitol.
Later Thursday, a moment of silence was held on the House floor to honor Cummings. “A moment of silence will not be enough to respect the life of Elijah Cummings,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, also of Maryland. “What will be enough is if we follow his example for a lifetime.”
President Donald Trump also ordered flags to be lowered at the White House. Last summer, Trump criticized the congressman’s Baltimore district as a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Upon news of Cummings death, Trump made no mention of his past comments and tweeted his “condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see firsthand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives, told WTOP she was shocked by Cummings’ death, especially in light of the fact he was still handling matters before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last week. She expected he would continue in that role for years.
“It’s interesting that as much of a critic as he, of course, was of the administration. He ran the committee, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee which he chaired, with such evenhandedness that he was admired on both sides,” she said. “He had friends on both sides of the aisle and respect on both sides of the aisle.”
“Nobody messed with him,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who served with Cummings on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told WTOP. “When he got mad about peoples’ misbehavior, everybody looked up. And everybody realized that he had called us back to our better angels.”
Raskin said Cummings had struggled with health problems in recent years.
“He insisted on going forward. His courage, his stamina, his commitment were just remarkable. We knew he was struggling, but he never uttered a word of complaint. It is hard to measure the enormity of the loss that Maryland and the whole country have just suffered with Elijah going. We’re going to miss him every day. He was the prophetic voice connecting us to all of the great movements of our past and connecting us to the future,” Raskin said.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said Cummings was a friend and a colleague. The two went to the same Baltimore high school and served in the Maryland General Assembly today.
Cardin called Cummings a “powerful voice for social justice.”
“No one can fill his void,” Cardin told WTOP. “That void will be there. But we’ve got to carry on that struggle, that struggle for basic rights for all people in our country, that the path to make sure that our Constitution is respected and to make sure that we continue to serve as he did.”
Cardin also said, “Quite possibly no elected official mattered so much to his constituents. Chairman Cummings guaranteed a voice to so many who would otherwise not have one, and stood as a symbol for the heights one could reach if they paid no mind to obstacles, naysayers and hate. His commitment to his city and country was unwavering, as will be my lasting respect for him.”
Sen. Chris Van. Hollen, D-Md., called Cummings a hero.
“At a time of chaos and division, our friend Elijah Cummings stood strong as a man of principle, unity, dignity, and compassion. His insatiable thirst for justice was rooted in his core. Maryland has lost a beloved son and our nation a hero of our times,” Van Hollen said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Congress has lost “one of the great ones.”
“His passion, eloquence and decency were hallmarks of a leadership style that was born of humble roots. Elijah Cummings never forgot those roots or the Baltimore neighborhoods he represented,” Connolly said. “His barrel-chested voice was a force to be reckoned with. It was my deep honor to call him friend. His passing leaves a void at a time of national crisis and a void in our hearts.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., tweeted that he was “tremendously saddened to learn of the passing of Elijah Cummings. This is a loss for Baltimore, Congress, and the country.”
Warner told WTOP Cummings was a “powerful moral voice in Congress.”
“My hope would be that whoever tries to replace him could bring that same sense of commitment to his community, as well as humility. You know, a lot of folks get in politics and they kind of forget the past and forget who brought them to the process. Elijah Cummings never forgot where he came from,” Warner said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, described Cummings as “a fierce advocate for civil rights.”
“Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore City and working to improve people’s lives. He was a passionate and dedicated public servant whose countless contributions made our state and our country better,” Hogan said.
Former Maryland Lt. Governor and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Cummings always made it clear that lawmakers needed to uphold the Constitution and could not walk away from their responsibilities.
“He made it very clear that what he was doing and why he was fighting was not for some partisan political gain, but, but was consistent with his ideal of servant leadership. We will miss that, and we certainly wish more men and women in authority and leadership would use him as the model that he was,” Steele told WTOP.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela A. Alsobrooks said Cummings’ legacy will live on.
“Congressman Cummings spoke truth-to-power, he was a beacon of light and hope, and he served as a mentor and inspiration for countless elected officials, like me. I know that he was impassioned by his constituents and empowered by God,” Alsobrooks said.
“The death of Congressman Cummings is a huge loss for Maryland, and all Americans. He was a towering force for good, a champion of truth and justice for all, and a great friend and defender of the Chesapeake Bay. His wisdom and leadership will be sorely missed,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Cummings never shied away from standing up for what was right.
“The Congressman holds a special place in the hearts of Washingtonians – not only as an alumnus of Howard University, where he served as Student Government President – but for helping us forge ahead on our path to D.C. Statehood. His work to make every community he touched a better place is one we should all emulate,” Bowser said.
In a statement, the NAACP remembered Cummings as a “passionate and spirited” congressman, who was equally comfortable in the halls of Congress as in his Baltimore neighborhood.
“For him, it was one world,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told WTOP. “You represent the people you live among. You represent the people that you go to church with. You represent the people you care most about. So when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in the Capitol, he was bringing all of the concern and the wisdom from the district that he represented. And for that, he was an effective representative, not only for the district but for United States citizens across the country.”
Former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who chaired the House Benghazi and Oversight committees, frequently sparred with Cummings. On Twitter Thursday, Gowdy called Cummings “one of the most powerful, beautiful & compelling voices in American politics,” whose authenticity and sincerely held beliefs were an inspiration.
The son of a sharecropper who became a civil rights champion
Born Jan. 18, 1951, the son of a sharecropper, Cummings went to Howard University in D.C. and then to the University of Maryland School of Law, his official biography said.
Cummings rose though the ranks of the Maryland House of Delegates before he won the 7th District congressional seat in a special election in 1996 to replace former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who left the seat to lead the NAACP.
Throughout his career, Cummings used his fiery voice to highlight the struggles and needs of inner-city residents. He believed in much-debated approaches to help the poor and addicted, such as needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of AIDS.
Colleen Kelleher is an award-winning journalist who has been with WTOP since 1996. Kelleher joined WTOP as the afternoon radio writer and night and weekend editor and made the move to WTOP.com in 2001. Now she works early mornings as the site's Senior Digital Editor.