With Congress bitterly divided, Elijah Cummings’ memorial brings political foes together

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. (Photo via Flickr Commons)

WASHINGTON —  The nation’s political elite gathered in the U.S. Capitol Thursday to celebrate the life of Baltimore’s native son, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.

In a week otherwise marked by partisan acrimony, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate came together to praise Cummings for his ability to bring people together in a sharply divided time.

Cummings’ unifying impact on Congress, his community, and the country was heralded by several lawmakers during the morning memorial service on a sunny fall day in the nation’s capital. But it was perhaps best captured by Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican from North Carolina and a strong ally of President Donald Trump.

“I was privileged enough to be able to call him a dear friend,” Meadows told the crowd of dignitaries assembled in Statuary Hall, his voice cracking and his eyes tearing up. “Some classified that as unexpected, but … perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.”

The pair developed an unlikely friendship as fellow members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which Cummings chaired this year until his death last week. He was 68.

Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri opened with a prayer for Cummings, whom he called the “Mahogany Marylander.” 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., offered gratitude and reverence for a man she called “the son of sharecroppers, master of the House.” 

“I have called him our North Star, our guide to a better future for our children,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., followed, praising the longtime lawmaker for his efforts to heal wounds, particularly amid the unrest in his hometown that followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody.

“By day, the congressman was here in the Capitol, working and leading in these hallways of power,” McConnell said. “But every night, he rode the train back home and walked the neighborhood, bullhorn in hand, encouraging unity and peace.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, both Maryland Democrats, also memorialized Cummings, as did Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Universally respected and admired, Cummings’ authority came from “the moral force of his life,” Schumer said — a sentiment echoed by others of both parties.

The morning’s somber and collegial tone came in the midst of a bitter week on Capitol Hill, featuring a GOP attempt to break in to a closed-door impeachment hearing and attacks on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for failing to halt the spread of disinformation.

In remarks from the House floor later in the day, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, who is Pennsylvania’s only member of the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke movingly of his friend and colleague, whom he called a “relentless in his commitment to civic participation.”

Evans, a former state lawmaker, noted that he and Cummings faced similar challenges before their election to Congress. Both represented urban districts, and both were elected within a year of each other to thei respective state legislatures, Cummings in 1981, Evans in 1981.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, writing on Twitter, called Cummings “the conscience of our caucus, and we were all blessed to serve with him — the embodiment of leadership, patriotism, and public service.”

In a statement released at the time of Cummings’ death, on Oct. 17, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-18th, the dean of Pennsylvania’s Democratic House delegation, called the Maryland Democrat a “hardworking public servant and a decent, gracious individual who was highly respected on both sides of the aisle.”

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, writing on Twitter, said Cummings was “a giant among men. His principle, dignity, and grace led our House and will be greatly missed in this body, his district, and our country. It was my true honor to serve with such a patriot.”

Son of Baltimore

Born and raised in Baltimore, Cummings graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University despite struggles with reading and learning as a child. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Maryland and practiced law before entering state politics.

Cummings represented Maryland’s 7th District since first winning the seat in 1996. He served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003 to 2005 and assumed the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — one of six panels conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump — in January.

Cummings’ remains were delivered to the Capitol on Thursday morning, where he was scheduled to lie in state until Thursday evening. Members of the public were able to view his flag-draped casket in the Capitol Thursday afternoon.

Cummings is the first African American to receive the honor, which has been granted to only a few dozen statesmen in U.S. history.

The events follow a week of tributes to the Maryland lawmaker, including remarks in the U.S. House on Monday. His funeral will take place Friday at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, where he worshipped for decades. 

The ceremony also featured a short performance by the Morgan State University Choir and a wreath-laying by Congressional leaders.

It is widely assumed that Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, will run in the special election to succeed him. 

Official campaign launches for the special election aren’t expected until after Cummings’ funeral. But a host of potential candidates are rumored to be in the running, and Rockeymoore Cummings could face a crowded field if she decides to jump in.