Washington • Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, a son of sharecroppers who rose to become one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress and a central figure in the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, died Thursday in Baltimore. He was 68.
His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman, Trudy Perkins, in a statement that said he died of “complications concerning long-standing health challenges.” No other details were given.
As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Cummings had sweeping power to investigate Trump and his administration — and he used it.
A critical ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cummings spent his final months in Congress sparring with the president, calling Trump’s effort to block congressional lines of inquiry “far worse than Watergate.”
He was sued by Trump as the president tried to keep his business records secret.
With his booming voice and a speaking cadence with hints of the pulpit — his parents eventually became preachers — Cummings was a compelling figure on Capitol Hill. For more than two decades, he represented a section of Baltimore with more than its share of social problems. He campaigned tirelessly for stricter gun control laws and help for those addicted to drugs.
He grabbed the national spotlight in 2015 when he took to the streets of Baltimore, bullhorn in hand, and pleaded for calm after riots erupted in his neighborhood after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody. Hours earlier, Cummings had delivered Gray’s eulogy.
When the president assailed Cummings’s beloved Baltimore — a city whose population is two-thirds African American — as “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” and “the worst run and most dangerous” city in the United States, the congressman vociferously defended his hometown. He said while it was his “constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch,” it was his “moral duty” to fight for his constituents.
Cummings took on both tasks with passion. He used his powerful perch on Capitol Hill to target Trump in the most public of ways. In February of this year, Cummings summoned Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, to testify before his committee for an extraordinary hearing in which Cohen denounced the president as “a con man” and a “cheat.”
The most arresting moment came from the congressman’s plaintive closing statement. “We have got to get back to normal!” Cummings thundered from the dais, in a moment that quickly went viral.
Cummings was in his 13th term serving as a representative for Maryland. He had been absent from Capitol Hill in recent weeks because of his illness. But before that, he could often be found in the Speaker’s Lobby — the ornate antechamber off the House floor, decorated with portraits of past House speakers — fielding reporter’s questions or quietly reading in the motorized wheelchair he used.
As Washington awoke to news of Cummings’ passing Thursday, lawmakers publicly mourned the loss of a congressman they called a lion of the institution and a treasured representative of his constituents.
“He spoke truth to power, defended the disenfranchised and represented West Baltimore with strength and dignity,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chairman of the Democratic caucus, wrote on Twitter. “Congress has lost a Champion. Heaven has gained an Angel of Justice. May he forever #RestInPower.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who served with Cummings in the House, said his death left an “irreplaceable void.”
“Quite possibly no elected official mattered so much to his constituents,” Cardin said in a statement. “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.”
Cummings prided himself on his slow, methodical manner, but he could also work himself into a fiery oration, when his brow would furrow deeply and his voice would quiver with emotion. When Trump sued him in April to keep his business records secret, Cummings urged Congress to move slowly on impeachment. But the following month, with the White House raising a full-scale blockade of Democrats’ access to documents and witnesses, Cummings sounded impatient in an interview.
“It sounds like he’s asking us to impeach him,” the congressman said then, calling the White House blockade “a constitutional crisis” that was “far worse than Watergate.”
Cummings was also an ardent defender of Hillary Clinton as the top Democrat during the grueling hearings held by the committee that investigated the 2012 terrorist attack on two government facilities in Benghazi, Libya. His antagonistic exchanges with the chairman of that panel, former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., once grew so heated that The Daily Beast proclaimed the two men had gone “ballistic.”
Cummings had a series of health challenges in recent years and had begun making his way around the Capitol in his motorized scooter and using a walker to steady himself. In 2017, he was in the hospital for two months after complications from a heart valve replacement, convinced, he said, that he was “living on borrowed time.”
But he was spiritual in his approach to his illness, and his life. He told the story of how one day, when was in such dire pain that he thought he might faint, a hospital worker turned up at his bedside, saying the Lord had sent her to deliver a message: “I’m just trying to get your attention. I’m not done with you.”
As his health deteriorated, Cummings’ wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, ended her bid for governor. In a statement Thursday, she called her late husband “a dynamic figure in American politics.”
“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,” said Maya Cummings, who chairs the Maryland Democratic Party.
Although he was a fierce defender of his party and its interests, Elijah Cummings had strong friendships with members of the other party. Republicans generally held him in high regard, and he had an especially improbable bond with Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
“Just hearing about the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings and my heart is broken,” former Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, wrote on Twitter. “Just broken. I had the honor and privilege of serving with this strong man in Congress.”
Cummings was revered in Baltimore, where he came up as a lawyer and later a state legislator. A tall, broad-shouldered man with an expressive face, Cummings had served in Congress since winning a special election in 1996 to fill the seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume, who resigned to become president of the NAACP. Cummings’ 7th District includes most of West Baltimore and suburbs west of the city, as well as Howard County.
Since his initial victory in 1996, Cummings had not been seriously challenged in either a primary or general election, according to The Almanac of American Politics. In 2003 and 2004, he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama for president and was co-chairman of Obama’s campaign in Maryland in 2008.
Elijah Eugene Cummings, the son of sharecroppers from South Carolina who moved north to improve prospects for themselves and their children, who would eventually number seven, was born in Baltimore on Jan. 18, 1951, and grew up in the city.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University in Washington, where he was student government president, with a degree in political science. He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and was a practicing attorney while serving for 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he was the first African American in the state’s history to be named speaker pro tem.