Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a son of sharecroppers who rose to become one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress and a key figure in the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump, died Thursday in Baltimore, his spokeswoman said. He was 68.
His death resulted from “complications concerning long-standing health challenges,” the spokeswoman, Trudy Perkins, said in a statement, without elaborating on the cause.
As chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Cummings, of Maryland, had sweeping power to investigate Trump and his administration — and he used it.
A critical ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cummings spent his final months in Congress sparring with the president, calling Trump’s effort to block congressional lines of inquiry “far worse than Watergate.” He was sued by Trump as the president tried to keep his business records secret.
With his booming voice and a speaking cadence with hints of the pulpit, Cummings was a compelling figure on Capitol Hill. For more than two decades, he represented a section of Baltimore with more than its share of social problems. He campaigned tirelessly for stricter gun control laws and help for those addicted to drugs.
He grabbed the national spotlight in 2015 when he took to the streets of Baltimore, where, bullhorn in hand, he pleaded for calm after riots erupted in his neighborhood after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody. Hours earlier, Cummings had delivered Gray’s eulogy.
In July, after Cummings attacked Trump for the squalid conditions in immigrant detention centers on the southern border, Trump struck back, calling the congressman’s district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” Cummings vociferously defended his hometown.
Cummings had been ailing recently and was sometimes seen using a wheelchair and an oxygen tank. He was away from Congress for nearly three months following heart surgery in the fall of 2017. Soon afterward, he was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for what his office described as a bacterial infection in his knee.
A hulking, bearlike man, Cummings had served in Congress since winning a special election in 1996 to fill the seat vacated by Kweisi Mfume, who resigned to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Cummings’s Seventh District includes most of West Baltimore and suburbs west of the city, as well as Howard County.
Since his initial victory in 1996, Cummings had not been seriously challenged in either a primary or general election, according to The Almanac of American Politics. In 2003 and 2004, he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama for president and was co-chairman of Obama’s campaign in Maryland in 2008.
Cummings, the son of sharecroppers from South Carolina who moved north to improve prospects for themselves and their children, who would eventually number seven, was born in Baltimore on Jan. 18, 1951, and grew up in the city.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University in Washington, where he was student government president, with a degree in political science. He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and was a practicing attorney while serving for 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.