The recently deceased Congressman Elijah Cummings was a man who combined humility and purposefulness, with a large measure of fearless passion, to serve his constituents with unwavering allegiance. He served the impoverished in the Baltimore City and the wealthy in Baltimore and Howard counties.
So much has been said and written since Rep. Cummings died last Thursday, Oct. 17 at the young age of 68. He battled declining health in recent years. Yet, his voice and resolve never weakened.
Some years ago, I saw Cummings at a political fundraiser outside Easton. We met at the doorway to a lovely home reached by a long driveway. As he entered this home, distant more than geographically from West Baltimore, he said to me, “Man, this is uptown.” We both understood his comment. He proceeded into the crowd and then gave one of his patently inspiring speeches.
He spoke like a Baptist minister.
Several years ago, I spoke with him at a job fair he organized periodically at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore. As I tried to engage him in conversation, welcoming him to the headquarters of the Maryland National Guard, I realized he had no interest in schmoozing. Instead, he wanted to make darn sure that his constituents were benefiting from the job fair.
He wasn’t interested in just going through the motions; his neighbors needed jobs. As soon as possible.
Elijah Cummings was a serious public official. He understood that helping people escape poverty was no picnic. Though he was a highly respected and even powerful U.S. representative, he remained tied inextricably to his roots in the streets of a beleaguered, troubled city.
While he may have campaigned “uptown,” he always came home.
When I read more than five years ago about the Baltimore riots that ensued after city police officers were charged in the death of Freddie Gray, I learned that he strode into groups of angry people counseling calm and civil obedience, using a bullhorn. He wasn’t seeking personal glory and flattering headlines; he wanted to stop the destruction of the city he loved.
He understood leadership at its most basic level: show up, listen and follow up. Fear is an impediment.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Not everybody can be famous but everybody can be great because greatness is determined by service…You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” Rep. Cummings personified these words, though he did gain fame in the political arena.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he was relentless in his investigation of President Trump. He faced strong opposition from congressional members of the Republican Party. Yet, I was interested to read that his political foes were his friends, who deeply respected and liked him. We’re led to believe that’s a rare occurrence in Washington, DC.
Cummings accomplished the art of fighting hard and still retaining friends, despite voicing diametrically opposed viewpoints during fraught hearings.
His congressional district, the city he loved, and the state and nation he served have lost an exemplary political leader. He was larger than life in some ways; his booming voice and ever-present passion could suck the air out of a room. His sincerity always underscored his message.
Elijah Cummings would visit the Shore periodically. His celebrity never interfered with his making immediate connection to his hosts and guests. He was genuine—and determined to push people to be, and do better.
Congressman Cummings will be missed. He ennobled politics and public service.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.