Elijah Cummings, the Democratic Representative from Maryland known as a fierce defender of civil rights and, more recently, as a thorn in President Donald Trump’s side, died on Thursday morning. He was 68.
A statement from his office said that he had passed away due to “complications concerning longstanding health challenges.” He died at Gilchrist Hospice Care, a Johns Hopkins affiliate at approximately 2:45 a.m., the Baltimore Sun reported.
“He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation’s diversity was our promise, not our problem,” Cumming’s wife, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, said in a statement issued on Thursday morning. “It’s been an honor to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly.”
The Democratic leader had not returned to work at his office this week after undergoing an unspecified medical procedure.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led multiple investigations into the president’s governmental dealings, including a probe this year related to the president’s family members serving in the White House.
Because of his Oversight role, he has been one of the most prominent players in the impeachment investigation.
As political leaders in Baltimore and Washington woke up to the news of Cummings’ death, condolences and remembrances poured in.
“In the House, Elijah was our North Star,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “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.”
California Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris said, “we lost a giant today. Congressman Elijah Cummings was a fearless leader, a protector of democracy, and a fighter for the people of Maryland. Our world is dimmer without him in it.”
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Cummings “leaves an irreplaceable void in our hearts. His commitment to his city and country was unwavering, as will be my lasting respect for him.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a fellow Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Cummings death came at a time when the U.S.can “ill-afford to lose such a kind, principled leader,” adding that his “unmatched integrity and leadership leaves a remarkable legacy.”
The mayor of Cummings’ hometown of Baltimore, Bernard “Jack” Young: said: “The City of Baltimore, our country, and people throughout the world have lost a powerful voice and one of the strongest and most gifted crusaders for social justice. [He] wasn’t afraid to use his considerable intellect, booming voice, and poetic oratory to speak out against brutal dictators bent on oppression, unscrupulous business executives who took advantage of unsuspecting customers, or even a U.S. President.”
The tributes poured in from both sides of the aisle, with Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina, saying he was ”truly heartbroken, I have no other words to express the loss." Meadows and Cummings formed an unlikely friendship in recent years, despite their disparate political views.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Cummings “spoke truth to power, defended the disenfranchised and represented West Baltimore with strength and dignity.”
Jeffries’ reference to “angels” echoed remarks made by Cummings in February when he spoke about protecting democracy, at the hearing of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, reducing the witness to tears.
“When we are dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” Cummings said.
Cummings was the son of sharecroppers, and rose to become one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. He was born in 1951 to parents from South Carolina who moved north as part of the Great Migration, hoping to improve their lives and provide better opportunities for their family.
Cummings, who was told in high school that he would not succeed academically, defied expectations from an early age. He ultimately earned a political science degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he was student government president. He then earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and was a practicing attorney.
He entered politics in 1983 and served 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he was the first African American in the state’s history to be named speaker pro-tem.
Since he won a House seat in a special election in 1996, he has been a leading voice in Congress, and has never been seriously challenged in either a primary or general election. When asked by CNN last month if he was seeking re-election, Cummings replied: “Oh yeah, I’m registered. I’m running.”
Cummings represented his district in Baltimore tirelessly and campaigned for stricter gun control and help for those addicted to drugs.
Cummings was an advocate for civil rights his entire life, and his official biography says the lawmaker “dedicated his life of service to uplifting and empowering the people he is sworn to represent.” He began his civil rights advocacy from a young age, when, at age 11, he helped integrate a local swimming pool while being attacked with bottles and rocks.
He rose to national prominence in 2015, in the wake of the death in police custody of Freddie Gray. As people rioted in the hours after Gray’s funeral, Cummings walked through the streets of Baltimore with a bullhorn, calling for calm.
Since 2016, Cummings has been using his position in Congress to focus attention on Trump’s alleged wrongdoing while in office. On Thursday morning, the president tweeted a muted remembrance of Cummings.
“My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Trump wrote. “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!”
In July, Cummings vehemently defended his hometown after the president called it “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess.” Trump, in turn, wasn’t shy about insulting Cummings. The president said the congressman had “done a very poor job for his district,” had “failed badly” and should “should investigate himself with his Oversight Committee.” And in August, Trump even sarcastically posted it was “too bad” when Cumming’s home was burglarized.
Cover: Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)