He lumbered through the subway station deep in the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, a portfolio tucked under his left arm.
The time for a roll call vote on the floor of the House -- all the way over at the Capitol -- had long since expired. But the vote remained open and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was running late. The train initially lurched forward, departing from the Rayburn station with just two passengers on board: House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and a reporter.
"Elijah!" hollered Chaffetz when he spotted his colleague, the top Democrat on the Oversight panel. Without a moment of hesitation, the train operator knew what to do. He inched the shuttle back into the station to accommodate the tardy congressman, laboring to make the vote. Cummings flung his body aboard and collapsed into one of the train seats, opposite Chaffetz.
Both members were coming from a hearing with security officials on April's gyrocopter incursion at the Capitol which ran late. But as is often the case on Capitol Hill, lawmakers frequently face pressing issues in multiple places at the same time -- be it a big hearing on a major security breach and a vote on the House floor.
"We called the cloakroom," said Chaffetz, trying to reassure Cummings they wouldn't miss the vote despite their mutual delay.
The cloakroom is not just a place where the House of Representatives keeps the cloaks. It's the equivalent of an ops center for the floor. If a hearing runs long or members are detained, it's typical for committees to phone over to the cloakroom, asking leaders to hold open votes so swaths of members hung up elsewhere can make the quarter-mile traverse across the street from the House office buildings, up several flights of stairs and to voting machines to cast their ballots on the floor.
Having collected its additional passenger, the train again surged forward on its 38-second jaunt to the Capitol basement. Cummings slumped in the seat, his head tilted against the Plexiglas quarter window of the open-air trolley. He closed his eyes, desperate for slumber despite the abbreviated trip.
Sleep was a scarce commodity for Cummings these days. His hometown of Baltimore was on fire, devolving into mayhem following the funeral of Freddie Gray. Cummings double-shifted all week. He stayed up all night, walking Pennsylvania Avenue in east Baltimore armed with a bullhorn, pleading for calm. And then come sunrise, Cummings trekked an hour south to the nation's capital down I-95 to cast votes, probe the gyrocopter incident, oversee the sometimes out-of-control Secret Service and deal with the Benghazi inquiry. He's the ranking Democrat on the select committee investigating that issue, too. Then it was back to Baltimore for another night of pandemonium and very little shuteye.
The train pulled into the station at the Capitol and the pneumatic, automatic doors slid open.
"I'll pair with you," said Chaffetz to Cummings.
"Pairing" is a tradition sometimes practiced by friendly members of opposing parties to essentially cancel out one another on certain roll call votes. In other words, Chaffetz offered to Cummings the opportunity to "pair." The Utah Republican wouldn't vote on this particular roll call if Cummings didn't make it upstairs in time to do so, either. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
But Cummings isn't afforded opportunities to "pair" with anyone when his hometown is a blazing spectacle, broadcast live on every television network imaginable and he's needed two places at once. There is no "pairing up" if you're not in Baltimore when it explodes because you're stuck in Washington. No one holds the train for you to make sure you get to the neighborhood. And if you're stuck in Baltimore, who's there to talk to the Secret Service, the U.S. Capitol Police Chief and figure out when Hillary Clinton is going to talk to lawmakers about Benghazi? Either you're there or you're not. And sacrificing sleep, Cummings has been there.
The MARC Rail train which whisks commuters between Washington and Baltimore doesn't run as many sorties between the two metropolitan areas as Cummings has made recently.
But there was Cummings, night after night, walking the streets, urging people -- and news crews -- to just go home. Settle down. Cool off. And go home.
Presumably to sleep, ironically.
But there is no sleep for Cummings.
Bellowing in his resonant bass, Cummings patrolled the streets of Baltimore, wielding a hand-held megaphone. It's emblazoned with the words "The Gentleman Will Not Yield." Some lawmakers bequeathed Cummings the apparatus after then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., abruptly adjourned a hearing, cutting off the Maryland Democrat during an inquiry into the IRS.
Politically, the incident may have been the best thing that ever happened to Cummings -- burnishing his image as a Democrat willing to stand up to a chairman some regarded as abusive and a bully. It earned Cummings chits in the Democratic caucus and bolstered his national reputation. Even back then, some Democrats started to wonder if perhaps a new leader was blossoming in their midst.
Rioters and looters and arsonists don't break for sleep. Neither do hearings into gyrocopters and closed door conclaves on Benghazi. These days, Cummings needs to be two places at once. A cat nap on the train between Rayburn and the Capitol? That respite is so short it doesn't even qualify as a kitty nap.
But that's about the only break Cummings was catching these days.
Last Friday, the House finished voting on an energy and water spending bill at 10:46 a.m., completing its voting for the week. But by 12:05 p.m., Cummings had navigated I-95 and was standing in front of Baltimore's city hall by a phalanx of TV cameras. He applauded the decision by prosecutor Marilyn Mosby to charge six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray.
The long, political shadow behind all of this is the recent retirement announcement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., long an acolyte of Baltimore native and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., quickly jumped into the fray to succeed Mikulski. So did Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., from the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Names still mentioned as possible candidates are Reps. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., John Delaney, D-Md., John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Elijah Cummings.
No one quite knows what the chaos of Baltimore means for the Senate contest. But what everyone does know is that the trajectory of the race could alter geometrically if Cummings wades in. A few weeks ago, an internal Cummings poll showed him leading both Edwards and Van Hollen. Analysts point to two possible advantages for Cummings should he run to succeed Mikulski. First, there's high support from black voters on his home turf of Baltimore. The second factor is a little trickier: Van Hollen and Edwards represent the immediate Maryland suburbs adjacent to Washington, D.C. Van Hollen holds a national profile -- a veteran of rough-and-tumble fiscal battles with Republicans and a frequent guest on Sunday political talk shows. Edwards doesn't enjoy the same cache. But high-profile media appearances by Cummings as the Democrats' point person on Benghazi -- and as Darrell Issa's foil on a host of inquests -- upped his bona fides among Beltway insiders who reside in Maryland. The theory is that Cummings could lock up the Baltimore vote and siphon suburban Washington voters now represented by Van Hollen and Edwards. That could be a ticket to the Democratic nomination.
But it was far from settled what Cummings may do even before the riots hit Baltimore. Plus, the Senate seat isn't the only opportunity for Cummings to matriculate. With Van Hollen out of the House mix, there's speculation that Cummings could be a lawmaker whom Democrats draft for leadership -- depending on the futures of Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Assistant Minority Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., in the coming years.
Cummings even noted he didn't have time to focus on the Senate scenarios now. A few weeks before Baltimore burned, a cadre of reporters buttonholed the Maryland Democrat in the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor about problems at the Secret Service. Then the conversation turned to Benghazi. Cummings is often exasperated by what he views as the GOP's politicization of the Benghazi probe. I jokingly noted to Cummings he could get off the Benghazi committee if he made it to the Senate.
Cummings laughed deeply, the rumble rolling up through his belly.
But Cummings is right. There's not a lot of time right now to consider the Senate bid. Certainly not for a guy catching subterranean z's on the Capitol subway line. And for someone with a portfolio as broad as Cummings', when will he sleep if he decides to run for Senate?