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Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings Dies At Age 68


Maryland Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings died early this morning from complications due to long-standing ill health. He was 68 years old. Cummings was a senior black voice in Congress, praised as a moral authority and beloved across the political spectrum. Most recently, he was one of the chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this remembrance.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Elijah Cummings made it in America despite all odds stacked against him. The son of sharecroppers, he was born in Baltimore's inner city to parents seeking a better life for their seven children. He recalled that childhood with his characteristic good humor and booming voice earlier this year.


ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Now you can imagine, with one bathroom, what the mornings were like. You had to get up at 2 o'clock in the morning just to get a spot.

DAVIS: Leaving a better world behind was his life's mission, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


NANCY PELOSI: He used to always say, our children are our living messengers to a future we will never see. So he wanted to be sure that that future was going to be better for them.

DAVIS: His work started as a child. At age 11, he tried to integrate a local public swimming pool. A white mob threw rocks and bottles, cutting his face and leaving him scarred for life. He decided that day to become a lawyer.


CUMMINGS: Well, you know what it did for me? It made me realize that I did have rights. It also made me realize that I might have to stand up to get the rights.

DAVIS: He went on to earn that law degree and later won a seat in the Maryland State House in 1982, rising to become the first black speaker pro tem. He was elected to Congress in a 1996 special election to represent Baltimore. This was the first message he delivered on the House floor.


CUMMINGS: Our world would be a much better world and a much better place if we would only concentrate on the things we have in common instead of concentrating on our differences.

DAVIS: Words he lived by. Beloved by Democrats, Cummings was also able to build relationships across the aisle despite being the party's point man on some of the most contentious issues of the times. He gained national prominence on the Republican-created committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attack. Here he is sparring with then-Chairman Trey Gowdy over disclosing transcripts.


CUMMINGS: You know, you...

TREY GOWDY: Well, I'll tell you what let's do then.

CUMMINGS: ...Ask for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Well, that's what we want to have. Put - let the world see it.

DAVIS: Today Gowdy praised Cummings as one of the most powerful, beautiful and compelling voices in American politics. Earlier this year, Cummings surprised many at a committee hearing when he defended North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Meadows, one of President Trump's staunchest allies, from an attack by a fellow Democrat.


CUMMINGS: I've said it and got in trouble for it - that you're one of my best friends. I know that shocks a lot of people.

MARK MEADOWS: And likewise, Mr. Chairman.

CUMMINGS: Yeah. But you are.

DAVIS: Cummings again showed his ability to rise above the fray when Trump used Twitter to attack his beloved Baltimore as a rat- and rodent-infested mess. Cummings responded with an open invitation.


CUMMINGS: I want him to come and look at my entire city. I'll ride with him for hours if he has to.

DAVIS: Even Trump praised Cummings today, calling him a highly respected political leader. Since Democrats won control of the House, Cummings has been a main antagonist for the president. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he was leading multiple investigations into the administration, including the ongoing impeachment inquiry. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Cummings last spoke to party leaders on a Sunday conference call.


STENY HOYER: Talking about how we ought to proceed with the heavy duties that confronted him, his committee and the Congress.

DAVIS: For the past two years, Cummings suffered from multiple declining health issues. He spoke frequently of his concerns that the current political era presented existential threats to American democracy and ideals. He died before he could see his work through. In his final months, he was often candid that the times weighed on him.


CUMMINGS: When we're dancing with the angels, the question will be asked - in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?

DAVIS: Cummings' life was never spent on the sidelines.

Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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