Moab • Between bites of his Dutch-oven dinner, Rep. Elijah Cummings throws out a bomb of a question and then a knowing wink.
"So, what do all of you think of Washington?"
The Maryland Democrat looked to his left and his right, surrounded by Republican leaders in rural Utah. State Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, sought a polite answer, a friendly grin showing below his white Stetson.
Finally, he manages: "It’s a nice tourist spot."
Bruce Adams was equally chummy, a hand draped over the back of Cummings’ chair in the old country dining hall. But the San Juan County Commission chairman wasn’t going to dodge the question.
"They are the enemy. They are uninformed," he said. "That’s why it is refreshing to have your eyes and ears on the ground here."
And that was the point, at least part of it.
Cummings came to Utah this past weekend to tour the congressional district of Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, to understand the political disputes unique to the West and to talk to people such as Hinkins and Adams who view the federal government as a hostile partner.
But Cummings also hopped a Southwest flight to Salt Lake City on Sunday to strengthen his relationship with Chaffetz. The two are key members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. If Republicans keep control of the House this November as expected, Chaffetz is one of three candidates to replace Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as the committee’s chairman. And Cummings is likely to remain the panel’s top Democrat.
Cummings has had a tense, combative relationship with Issa, who has spearheaded investigations of the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, the IRS scrutiny of tea-party groups and other conservative complaints against the Obama administration. He’d like to have a more constructive partnership with the next chairman. Chaffetz, a media-savvy politician who has been by Issa’s side during some of the most contentious investigations, doesn’t have the reputation of being as polarizing as the current chairman.
Cummings put it this way recently: "Chaffetz is not Issa. You know, he’s not."
And that may be why he invited Chaffetz to see his Baltimore-based district in late June.
He took the Utah Republican to a community center, where poor people were trying to learn skills to improve their lot in life. They visited a senior center, where they discussed the value of Social Security, and then they talked to people receiving treatment at an AIDS clinic.
Chaffetz, who never had been to the rougher parts of Baltimore, saw a world unlike anything that exists in his expansive congressional district that runs from southeastern Salt Lake County to the Four Corners area.
Cummings shared a favorite saying: "You cannot lead where you do not go and you cannot teach what you don’t know."
Crash course • Cummings doesn’t know Utah or the West or much about rural issues. This weekend’s venture was a world unlike anything that exists in his densely urban district. His district is dominated by Baltimore, where he has lived his entire life, and is as overwhelmingly liberal as Chaffetz’s is conservative.
After his plane touched down at Salt Lake City International Airport, a Chaffetz staffer ferried Cummings to an ancillary airport, where the state’s Beechcraft Super King Air was ready to take off.
This six-seater twin-propeller plane became a classroom as Chaffetz pointed out features of the land below, explaining the recreational uses of Utah Lake, the forests in Wasatch County, the coal mines in Price and, ultimately, the redrock around Moab, where the plane landed.
But the conversations weren’t about geography. Chaffetz gave his guest a sampling of the political disputes that put the state’s political leaders, who are mostly Republican, at odds with environmentalists and many federal bureaucrats.
Endangered species. Mining. The overpopulation of wild horses. The threat that President Barack Obama could create a new national monument.Next Page >
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