WASHINGTON — House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings’ death is an emotional blow to his Democratic congressional colleagues who, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, saw him as "our North Star."
It remains to be seen whether it’s a loss for their impeachment efforts as well.
The Maryland Democrat was at the center of nearly every major House investigation into the Trump administration, and he chaired one of the four committees responsible for investigating whether President Trump committed impeachable offenses by pressuring Ukraine to do his political bidding. Cummings’ sharp legal mind, moral heft, and ability to work across the aisle may be impossible to replace.
“What makes this such a big blow is that there is just no replacement for Elijah Cummings,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), who serves on the House Oversight Committee, told VICE News Friday morning. “This is a very, very sensitive and intense time. We're not just talking about picking a new chair in-between two terms. We're talking about who can carry this in the middle of the impeachment proceedings. This is the time for oversight.”
Still reeling from their longtime colleague’s death Thursday morning, Democrats have yet to grapple any plan to fill Cummings’ huge shoes. Democrats on the committee were in mourning Thursday and Friday after his sudden death, and most weren’t ready to discuss next steps publicly.
Cummings has been fighting health issues for years, and he came back from the last congressional recess with an oxygen tank. But he’d continued to work up until the end and participated in committee phone calls as recently as last Friday. Even his closest allies were stunned at his death.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of Cummings’ closest friends on the committee, was too emotional to speak as he entered the Capitol on Thursday morning.
“We’re trying to absorb this loss, which is a great loss”
"I can't talk about it,” he said, his voice quavering as he choked back tears. “He's been sick.”
Connolly was more composed later in the day — but batted away questions about who might head the committee in the future.
“I’m not going to get into that. Today is a day for Elijah Cummings. I’m not going to discuss what happens,” he said Thursday afternoon. “We’re trying to absorb this loss, which is a great loss.”
House leadership hasn’t announced when it will happen, but at some point soon the full House Democratic caucus will take a vote on who should be the next chairman of the powerful committee.
Committee members say Connolly would be one of the two most likely Democrats to fill Cummings’ role. A close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a loquacious speaker with a strong political sense, he chaired the committee while Cummings was out battling health issues for a few months last year.
The other person Democrats say would have a strong shot is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). She is now the acting chair based on her seniority on the committee, has chaired other committees, is well liked by her peers and has a history of effectively reaching across the aisle.
Read: The White House Just Admitted That There Was a Quid Pro Quo With Ukraine. What the Hell Happens Now?
But some members privately raised concerns about whether the mild-mannered congresswoman had the fighting instinct necessary to chair a committee that will be in the national spotlight in the coming months. Some also worried that having three of the four committees involved in impeachment headed by New York City members was too much, since the Foreign Affairs Committee is headed by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and the Judiciary Committee is run by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“Look at the ranking minority member,” one committee Democrat told VICE News, referring to the pugnacious Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “Who best is capable of taking that person on?”
Neither member was ready to discuss whether they would consider running for the chairmanship, however. And most of Cummings’ former committee colleagues were in the same boat, grappling with the loss of a friend and hero.
“It's a devastating loss. For me personally, he was a mentor and someone with unmatched integrity, someone who I, who I and others should forever try to emulate,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who blinked back tears as she discussed her longtime colleague. “It’s the kind of loss that you’re not sure can be replaced. For his community, for his colleagues. At a time when integrity and values and patriotism are in short supply this loss is felt even more deeply.”
The other senior members on the committee seem less likely to run. Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) aren’t favorites of House leadership. Few on the committee expected that Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) would run. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the second-most senior Democrat on the Committee, told VICE News that she wouldn’t run against Maloney but would “consider” a bid if Maloney opted not to run.
Still, whoever Democrats choose, they know how crucial it is to find the right person to replace Cummings.
“It’s very important,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told VICE News Friday morning. “Oversight is playing an important role [on impeachment]. You need a chairperson who is both a capable legislator but also someone who can run an investigation.”
Greg Walters contributed reporting to this story.
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)