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(Thomas Burr | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, smiles as Rep. Elijiah Cummings, D-Md., speaks at the Sandtown Winchester Senior Center on Monday, June 23. Cummings invited Chaffetz to visit Cummings' Baltimore district to learn what his constituents face. The two congressman are likely to be the top leaders on a powerful House committee next year.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz takes a tour of the liberal side

First Published Jun 29 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jul 01 2014 09:57 am

Baltimore » Rep. Elijiah Cummings gets a laugh when he points out that Utah has a problem with wild horses.

That’s not something fathomable for the folks in inner-city Baltimore where the more pressing concerns are crime, unemployment and poverty. On the flip side, people in Provo don’t suffer from food deserts, or areas where grocery stores, and healthy food, are lacking.

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"I bet you’ve never heard of a food desert," Cummings says to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who shakes his head no.

Baltimore and Provo are almost polar opposites, politically, racially, economically — and yet they are represented in Congress by two men likely to be the top leaders on a powerful House committee next year. Cummings, a black Democrat, speaks with the gusto of a pastor; Chaffetz, a white Republican, tosses red meat when he talks.

The Utahn is possibly the next chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the next Congress; Cummings is likely to remain the ranking Democrat.

So in an effort to forge a relationship, and learn how each other ticks, the two are embarking on a sort of listening tour to each other’s district.

First up, Baltimore, the largest city in Cummings’ district where a small boy hawks bottled water in the median of a busy road, signs warn neighbors not to play ball in the street and home after home is boarded up. Cummings knows this isn’t what Chaffetz is used to, but the Democrat also wants to help the Republican get a glimpse of what life is like for his constituents.

"I want him to understand that life throws a lot of us some tough curves but yet there are still people who refuse to stay down, who do everything in their power to get back up," Cumming says at a stopover Monday at the Center for Urban Families, which helps those wrestling with parenthood and relationships. "It’s like struggling like a baby to walk. You get up, you grab a chair, you do whatever it takes and then you get up and once you stand up, you reach a new normal."

Cummings has sparred many times ­— sometimes in yelling matches — with Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, who is term-limited from continuing on as the committee’s leader. But Cummings sees a potentially better relationship with Chaffetz.

"I would say this if Chaffetz wasn’t in the room," Cummings says. "Chaffetz is not Issa. You know, he’s not."

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Challenges aplenty » About 30 students, dressed in their finest business attire, sit in a classroom at the Center for Urban Families. Some have had criminal troubles, all of them wanted some guidance to improve their lives. The white board in the room proclaims a lesson for today: "Direction determines destination, not your intentions."

"Not enough people see the direction they’re going and have the audacity to turn around; many go a lifetime," Cummings tells the group as he and Chaffetz stand before the group.

The Utah congressman, the only white person in the room, talks about how his district is the youngest in the country, has six ski areas and two universities. He quickly realizes the students have a rule in the classroom: They must introduce themselves before speaking or put a $1 bill in an empty water jug. Chaffetz whips out his wallet to pay up. "I didn’t say my name," he laments.

Baltimore has a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, one of the highest murder rates in the country, and a festering drug problem that inspired the HBO series, The Wire. The students at the Center for Urban Families are trying to get their lives back on track, get a good-paying job and make a better life for their kids.

"I can tell the moment I walked in here you guys are doing good stuff," Chaffetz tells them. "It’s inspirational seeing good people doing good things. It’s even more inspirational to see people who had challenges overcome them."

It’s nothing like Chaffetz’s home district, where the biggest city, Provo, has an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent, is growing in population and often ranked as one of the best cities to live in. But that’s the point of this trip: perspective.

"We don’t see brownstones likes this in Utah," Chaffetz says, glancing at the homes during a short drive between stops. "You just don’t. It’s just different."

Actually, you don’t see brownstones in Baltimore either; they’re rowhouses, like townhomes that share walls. It was all a bit foreign to the Utah Republican.

"I think it’s important that, you know, as we try to move towards a more perfect union that we have a better understanding of the people, and the issues that confront them, from our various districts," Cummings says. "And it’s important for me to understand what Chaffetz, [what] his district is like, so I can understand what his motivations are because I always try to put myself in the place of folks who may have opposite views so that I can understand them."

Cummings points to a favorite saying: "You cannot lead where you do not go and you cannot teach what you don’t know."

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