WASHINGTON – Rep. Elijah Cummings, a veteran Democratic congressman who represented Baltimore and served as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, died Thursday due to “long-standing health problems,” his office said. He was 68.
Cummings spent decades advocating for civil rights in Baltimore and represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional district since 1996. He had previously served 13 years as a delegate in the Maryland State House. A spokeswoman said he died at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Baltimore at 2:45 am.
The House of Representatives observed a moment of silence in Cummings’ honor shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday.
His death will cast a lengthy shadow over the 116th Congress, as Democrats who assumed the House majority in January navigate the ongoing impeachment investigation. Cummings chaired the House Oversight and Reform Committee since January, engaging in lengthy court battles with the administration over subpoenaed documents dealing with Trump’s finances and management of federal agencies.
Cummings had not taken part in a House roll call vote since Sept. 11. His office said he had undergone a medical procedure, but did not disclose its gravity.
The late congressman underwent a procedure to widen the aortic valve in his heart in 2017 and was later hospitalized for a knee infection. But over the summer, Cummings said his health was fine.
In honor of his years-long quest to lower prescription drug prices, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced Thursday that the Democrats’ bill to lower drug costs will be named after Cummings.
Cummings said his only private conversation with Trump was about drug prices. “Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels,” he said. “The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do – what present can we bring to generations unborn?”
Pelosi, who was close to Cummings, also ordered flags flying above the United States Capitol complex to be lowered to half-staff.
“I’m devastated by the loss. He fought to the end,” Pelosi said. “He lived the American dream, and he wanted it for everyone else. He spoke with unsurpassed clarity and moral integrity.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, called Cummings “a man of great faith, of great humility, of great humanity,” during remarks on the House floor Thursday.
Cummings was born on Jan. 18, 1951, in Baltimore. His father worked at a chemical factory, and his mother was a housekeeper. Cummings was one of seven children.
He recalled joining two dozen black boys for a swim in a non-integrated South Baltimore pool in 1962, which prompted white residents to surround them, throwing rocks and bottles. “They called us everything you can imagine,” Cummings said.
They shouted, “Go back to where you came from,” – a line Trump would use against four Democratic congresswomen in 2019 – he said. “At 11 years old, I declared in that moment that I was going to become a lawyer.”
Cummings attended Howard University in Washington, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1973. He then earned a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1976, and worked as an attorney in his own practice before his election to Congress.
From 1983 to 1996, he represented District 44 in the Maryland House of Delegates. He became the Maryland House’s first black speaker pro tempore.
When Rep. Kweisi Mfume announced he would resign his congressional seat in Maryland’s 7th District to become head of the NAACP, Cummings won the seat in a special election in 1996, beginning more than 22 years of House service.
Cummings’ first piece of sponsored legislation in the House was the National Drug Policy Act of 1997, which would have formed a Commission on National Drug Policy to study the production, distribution, and use controlled substances.
The bill did not become law, but it highlighted the Baltimore Democrat’s preoccupation with drug use in his community.
His lengthy career in Congress was marked by the national tragedy of the 9/11 terror attacks, the subsequent war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recession of 2008, and the bitter politics of the Trump era.
His tenure also coincided with the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement that followed Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri.
After Freddie Gray’s death in 2015 – which highlighted tensions between black residents and Baltimore police – Cummings spoke at the youth’s funeral.
“I’ve often said that our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see. But now our children are sending us to a future they will never see,” Cummings said. “There’s something wrong with that picture.”
He endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2016, but remained optimistic on the prospect of working with Trump when he was elected. That outlook soured during the administration’s first two years.
“Perhaps if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have had a lot of hope,” Cummings later said, adding that Trump “often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth.”
He railed with special vehemence against the administration’s treatment of migrant children in detention facilities along U.S.-Mexico border.
During an Oversight committee hearing in July, Cummings raged at former acting secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, “What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower – come on, man! What is that about? None of us would have our own children in that position.”
That criticism prompted Trump to go on the offensive, tweeting that Cummings was a “brutal bully” and calling his district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Cummings did not issue a direct response, but said at the National Press Club in Washington that “those at the highest levels of government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior… we are done with the hateful rhetoric.”
Despite his predominantly liberal voting record, Cummings was also known for his ability to work with Republican lawmakers.
When Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, testified before the oversight panel in February, Cummings called Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, “one of (his) best friends,” and urged Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, to clarify that she did not intend to call Meadows a racist during her remarks.
At that same hearing, Cummings pondered the consequences of his panel’s investigation of Trump: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will 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? Did we play games?”
In December 2017, the University of Maryland awarded Cummings his 13th and final honorary doctorate degree in Public Service. “You are our future,” he told graduates. “When many of us are dancing with the angels, you will have to carry on.”
The following year, his wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, was elected chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.
As news of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – in which he asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s business dealings in the country – broke Sept. 24, Cummings came forward in favor of an impeachment inquiry.
Cummings is survived by three children from separate relationships and his wife, Rockeymoore Cummings. She said in a statement that he “worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity.”