Cummings remembered as ‘great leader,’ advocate for poor

Elijah Cummings

BALTIMORE — He stood up for the poor and the disadvantaged throughout urban America — but Elijah Cummings was principally the strong voice and political advocate for Baltimore, where he was revered as his hometown’s champion.

The Democratic congressman lived at the doorstep of some of the city’s worst rioting, including violent 2015 protests following the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. Cummings’ involvement, taking to the streets with a bullhorn, helped quiet the storm.

Cummings died early Thursday at age 68.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Baltimore and whose father and brother were mayors of the city, said she was “personally devastated by his passing.”

Delawareans, from elected leaders to everyday citizens, joined people across the country who reacted to the Maryland congressman’s death. Rep. Cummings represented Maryland’s 7th District, including the city of Baltimore, and served as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

“Elijah Cummings was a great leader in Congress, and he was a good man. For him, it wasn’t about politics, but about public service. He was a tireless, passionate advocate for those he represented, even traveling home to his district almost every night to be with his community. He fought hard for what he believed in, but, even in today’s heated political climate, he showed the country that you can disagree without being disagreeable,” said Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat.

“He was a great partner who truly wanted to see our government and its institutions work for every American. We also worked together on numerous important investigations over the years. No matter what party controlled the White House or Congress, Chairman Cummings was determined to make sure the American people had what they deserved — the truth.”

Early Thursday morning, Delaware’s U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester expressed her condolences on social media.

“It was an honor to serve with Chairman Elijah Cummings in Congress. His professionalism, intellect and steady leadership earned him the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”

A powerful person in the halls of Congress about 30 miles away, Cummings lived in a home in west Baltimore, nestled among brick rowhouses just a block away from boarded up houses that dot the street. He was not immune to city problems. He scared off an intruder at his home in July.

In his 12 terms in Congress, Cummings steered support to the city. In recent years, that included funds to boost job training, address lead-based paint and fight homelessness, as well as grants to help fight heroin and other illegal opioids. He also battled for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support for a light rail project to improve transit in the city, but Gov. Larry Hogan opposed the plan’s design and didn’t include state funding for it in 2015, killing the project.

The congressman’s long push for civil rights began in Baltimore at age 11, when he helped integrate a local swimming pool. During a speech to the American Bar Association in April, Cummings recalled how he and other black children were barred from an Olympic-sized public pool in his South Baltimore neighborhood.

They organized protest marches with help from their recreation leader and the Baltimore-based NAACP. Every day for a week, when the children tried to get into the pool, they were spit upon, threatened and called names, Cummings said. One day, he was cut by a bottle thrown from an angry crowd.

“I am not saying that the integration of a swimming pool in South Baltimore changed the course of American history,” Cummings said. “What I can and will share with you is that the experience transformed my entire life.”

With his booming voice and gift for oratory, he was known for representing his district — which encompassed much of Baltimore and some of its wealthier suburbs — with a personal touch.

Poinsetta McKnight, who walked by Cummings’ home in West Baltimore, said he always assisted her family when they had neighborhood concerns, whether it was removing trash or addressing boarded-up houses.

“Whenever we needed something done, all we had to do was write to him and he would respond,” said McKnight.

While serving in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1996, Cummings pushed for a ban on alcohol and tobacco ads on inner-city billboards in Baltimore, leading to the first such prohibition in a large U.S. city.

Democratic Del. Brooke Lierman, who represents Baltimore in the Maryland General Assembly, said Cummings was a mentor to many.

“He always encouraged young people who believed in the power of government to do good and encouraged us to be active, to run for office and to push forward,” Lierman said.

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, echoed Cummings’ role as a mentor.

“I am heartbroken by his sudden passing, and I’m praying for his family, his constituents, and all the people who were lucky enough to call him a friend, a neighbor, or a role model.

“Elijah Cummings dedicated his life to fighting for those in need of a champion, demanding and protecting every American’s precious right to vote, and relentlessly pursuing our nation’s highest ideals,” Sen. Coons said.

And Delaware’s Gov. John Carney wrote Thursday on Twitter: “Our country has lost a giant of a leader.”

Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

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