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Elijah Cummings Took on the Powerful

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There are progressive members of Congress who cast good votes in favor of economic and social and racial justice and peace and the planet, and who understand this to be the purpose of their service. Then there are members of Congress who see those good votes as the starting point for a service that embraces struggles and engages with movements outside the Capitol.

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman Elijah Cummings, who died Thursday morning at age 68, was one of those activist members. He is being honored for his able work the congressional committee that is charged with holding the powerful to account. But it should be remembered, as well, that he spent an extraordinary amount of time on picket lines and at rallies, at worksites and in union halls with workers who have had few congressional allies so diligent and determined as the Baltimore Democrat. 

Cummings cast the right votes, against going to war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, for wage hikes and voting rights. He joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus and proudly served during the 108th Congress as the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He defended the system of checks and balances, during Republican and Democratic administrations, emerging in recent weeks as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry that is now targeting President Donald Trump.

Cummings, who made it his mission to defend the interests of federal workers, had tried harder than most Democrats to find common ground with Trump—hoping to identify ways where they might work together to protect the US Postal Service and prevent government shutdowns. “Mr. President,” he told the newly-elected Trump in their one meeting, “you’re now 70-something, I’m 60-something. Very soon you and I will be dancing with the angels. The thing that you and I need to do is figure out what we can do—what present can we bring to generations unborn?” But Trump rewarded that outreach with one of the cruelest outbursts of his awful presidency–a vile attack on the Oversight Committee chair and his hometown.

After Democrats took control of the House in 2019,  Cummings led increasingly focused and effective inquiries into the Trump administration, and the president grew enraged. Last July, he attacked the representative as “a brutal bully” and claimed that Cummings had “done a very poor job” and “failed badly!” as a member of the House since 1996. A veteran of the civil rights movement who recalled being “spit upon, threatened and called everything but children of God” when he and other African-American children participated in marches to integrate a public pool in Baltimore, Cummings would not have paid much mind to the presidential bluster. But when Trump attacked Cummings’ beloved Baltimore—describing the city as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being” would choose to live—the representative raised his deep, resonant voice in defense of his constituents and his community:

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