Washington • Rep. Elijah Cummings introduced Rep. Jason Chaffetz to Baltimore’s food deserts, areas where fresh groceries are lacking.
Chaffetz introduced Cummings to Dutch-oven cooking, a Utah favorite.
The two congressmen visited each other’s district, seeing firsthand their sometimes polar opposite worlds: politically, racially, economically. But they forged a friendship as the top members of a powerful House committee.
They often disagreed, though, as Cummings put it, they weren’t disagreeable.
“You could never disagree with his passion and his love of country,” Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said Thursday of Cummings. “I always remember him saying, ‘Oh, come on now, we can do better than that.’”
Cummings, a Democrat born the son of Southern sharecroppers who rose to a top government post, died Thursday after facing long-standing health challenges, his office said. He was 68.
The Baltimore congressman was known for his strong advocacy for racial equality and helping inner-city residents, as well as standing up for his principles despite the political winds. He had a booming voice and often spoke from the heart, not from carefully crafted talking points that are so common at the Capitol.
Of late, Cummings, as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, battled President Donald Trump, a move that made him a luminary to the left and bogeyman to the right. He led one of the committees focused on the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
Thursday, as news of his death broke, well wishes poured from friends and foe.
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the oversight committee, called Cummings “a man of great consequence and significance on the Oversight Committee for the last 20 years,” adding that Cummings “injected an unyielding passion and purpose into his work on the committee.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez tweeted, “America has lost a hero, and I have lost a dear friend. Elijah Cummings was the conscience of Congress.”
Chaffetz, too, mourned his “very good friend.”
“I'll miss him,” Chaffetz said, noting he recently visited the congressman in his House office. “He was a good man and if everybody would bring the passion like he would, we'd all be better off.”
Chaffetz and Cummings served side by side for years, with Chaffetz heading the oversight committee that probed and prodded the Obama administration while Cummings took to the defense of the White House.
Shortly before Chaffetz became oversight chairman, and Cummings its top Democrat, the two visited each other’s district to learn the challenges they faced. In 2014, Chaffetz saw an AIDS clinic in Baltimore and its boarded-up houses as well as the shiny, tourist-drawing Inner Harbor waterfront. He learned about how food deserts leave residents with unhealthy diets.
Cummings rafted down the Colorado River in southeastern Utah and took a second trip to a Dutch-oven buffet that he found delicious. The Maryland congressman also heard the concerns of rural residents living amid an area largely controlled by federal land managers.
“I had great respect for him, and he respected me; it was mutual,” Chaffetz said. “We came from very different backgrounds. But that’s the beauty of our system. That should be a strength, not a point of contention.”
When Obama left office and Trump took over, Chaffetz soon departed for the green-money pastures of Fox News, where he is a now a commentator, but Cummings remained. They stayed in touch, Chaffetz said.
In July, when Cummings and Trump were going at it, Chaffetz noted he had “great respect” for Cummings but wasn't going to get “in the middle of that spat.”
And they did.
Cummings, in his role as oversight chairman, went after Trump’s business dealings and possible abuse of power. He also harshly criticized the president’s policies toward migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. In return, Trump called Cummings racist and blasted his Baltimore district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
On Thursday, Trump struck a different tone about Cummings' death.
“My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Trump tweeted. “I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”
Similar words came from others who sparred with Cummings.
“Elijah’s passion for serving his beloved city was easy to see in everything that he did, and his determination to fight for equality and civil rights will never be forgotten,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican and chairwoman of the House GOP Conference. “He was a friend to all and sought to use his position in Congress to bridge divides, not widen them.”
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said he was sad to learn of Cummings’ death.
“I send my warmest condolences to his family and friends during this tough time,” Stewart tweeted. “He lived a life dedicated to public service and his legacy will not be forgotten.”
Former Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said she was “heartbroken” by the news.
“I had the honor and the privilege of serving with this strong man in Congress,” Love wrote on Facebook. “I had the honor of sharing my faith with him and facilitating his genealogy work with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I watched him defend Rep. Mark Meadows publicly and show how politics did not and would not define his narrative. I will miss him so greatly. Rest easy, my friend.”
Cummings had come to the defense of Meadows, R-N.C., after a Democratic member of Congress said Meadows had committed a “racist act” during a speech. Cummings said Meadows was one of his best friends.
Showing that partisanship hasn't overtaken all in Washington, Meadows on Thursday tweeted his sorrow.
“There was no stronger advocate and no better friend than Elijah Cummings, Meadows wrote. “I am heartbroken for his wonderful family and staff — please pray for them. I will miss him dearly.”