Rep. Elijah Cummings died at 68 after complications from “longstanding health issues,” his office confirmed.
WASHINGTON – Capitol Hill was in mourning Thursday after Rep. Elijah Cummings, a 23-year member of Congress, died due to complications from ongoing health problems.
Cummings, 68, was known as a fierce and fiery advocate for civil rights who passionately defended democratic principles and deplored the rancorous state of America’s divided political life.
The son of sharecroppers who went on to become a lawyer, judge and congressman, Cummings’ drive was often on display in his heartfelt, often heated addresses.
“We are better than this,” said Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee said at a heated hearing in February that featured President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. “We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who, like Cummings, was born in Baltimore, said the country had “lost a voice of unsurpassed moral clarity and truth.”
‘A leader of towering integrity’: Rep. Elijah Cummings, Capitol Hill veteran and Maryland Democrat, dies at age 68
“In the House, Elijah was our North Star. He was a leader of towering character and integrity, whose stirring voice and steadfast values pushed the Congress and country to rise always to a higher purpose,” she said in a statement.
Here is a look back at some of the moments that helped define Cummings’ distinguished political career.
‘Eternity is in it’: His first House speech
“Only God could create a path where the son of two sharecroppers from Manning, S.C., could rise to represent the people of the 7th Congressional District in the Congress of the United States of America,” Cummings said in his first speech from the House floor after his April 1996 swearing-in.
“I’ve often said on the floor of the Maryland House of Delegates that our world would be a much better world, and a much better place, if we would only concentrate on the things we have in common, instead of concentrating on our differences,” Cummings said. “It’s easy to find differences, very easy. We need to take more time to find common ground.”
He paraphrased a Benjamin Mays poem, which he said he told himself as many as 20 times a day.
“I only have a minute, 60 seconds in it,” he said. “Forced upon me, I did not choose it, but I know that I must use it, give account if I abuse it, suffer if I lose it. Only a tiny little minute.
“But eternity is in it.”
Grilling Mark McGwire on steroid use
When a panel of retired baseball stars testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in 2005, Cummings played hardball.
During his opening statement, Mark McGwire, who hit a then-record 70 home runs with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, appeared to fight back tears as he warned of the dangers of steroid use.
Cummings later pointed out that McGwire never said whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs. When McGwire refused to answer, Cummings asked him if he was invoking his Fifth Amendment rights.
“I’m not here to discuss the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject,” McGwire answered.
“I’m trying to be positive too,” Cummings said.
“I almost got tears in my eyes watching you testify,” he told McGwire, calling on the former slugger to become an anti-steroid spokesman. “We’ve got all these high school kids that are emulating you all. Although you’re out of the game now, they still look up to a McGwire and others.”
Cummings’ mic is shut off
During a 2014 hearing on the IRS’ scrutiny of conservative groups, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Darell Issa shut off Cummings’ microphone as the ranking Democrat tried to ask a question.
Issa adjourned the meeting and began to pack up as Cummings spoke.
“Mr. Chairman, you cannot run a committee like this. You just cannot do this. We’re better than that as a country, we’re better than that as a committee,” Cummings said before his microphone was cut off.
Issa then briefly turned his mic back on before declaring, “close it down,” and muting Cummings a second time.
“I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America! I am tired of this!” an infuriated Cummings shouted as some in the room began to chant, “shame.”
Issa later apologized for the incident.
Sparks fly between Cummings, Gowdy over Benghazi
Cummings served as the ranking Democrat on the Republican-led House’s Select Committee on Benghazi, which probed the events leading up to the 2012 attacks on a U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Cummings was an outspoken critic of the committee’s work, calling it redundant because of the previous investigations that had been conducted and criticizing it as a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.”
When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the committee, Cummings got into a heated exchange with Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., over whether to make public the full transcript of a Clinton associate’s interview with investigators.
“What do you have to hide?” Cummings demanded.
Defending Meadows from accusation of racism
When Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, testified before the Oversight Committee in February, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., appeared to accuse Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., of racism.
Cummings came to Meadows’ defense, calling him one of his best friends on the Oversight Committee.
“I can see and feel your pain. I feel it. And I don’t think Ms. Tlaib intended to cause you that, that kind of pain and that kind of frustration,” Cummings told Meadows.
What will we say ‘when we’re dancing with the angels?’
In his closing remarks after Cohen’s testimony, Cummings bemoaned the divisions within the country and decried Trump’s remarks attacking his former personal fixer as a “rat.”
“We’re better than that! We really are. And I’m hoping that all of us can get back to this democracy that we want, and that we should be passing on our children so they can do better than what we did,” Cummings said.
“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?” he asked.
‘They are human beings’: Cummings irate over migrant detention centers
In July, Cummings tore into acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan for the conditions at overcrowded migrant detention centers.
“These are human beings. Human beings just trying to live a better life,” Cummings said.
He was especially passionate about the effect of the conditions on migrant children, many of whom were separated from the parents under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policies.
“The damage that the Trump administration has inflicted – and is continuing to inflict – will impact these children for the rest of their lives.”
The hearing held by House Democrats targeted the administration’s immigration policies and the rapidly deteriorating conditions in detention centers.
‘Enough is enough’
Trump slammed Cummings for what he considered Cummings’ disrespectful treatment of McAleenan, calling him a “brutal bully” and insulting his home city of Baltimore as a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
The president’s remarks about the predominantly African-American city were widely condemned as racist.
At a National Press Club luncheon in August, Cummings said he wished Trump would visit his district, which includes much of Baltimore. And he denounced the president’s use of inflammatory rhetoric.
“Those in the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior. It only creates more division among us and severely limits our ability to work together for the common good. As a country, we finally must say that enough is enough.”
Contributing: Ledyard King, Jason Lalljee, Paul Singer and Gregory Korte
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings says government officials must stop making “hateful, incendiary comments” that only to serve to divide and distract the nation from its real problems, including mass shootings and white supremacy.
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