Reporter's Notebook: Rep. Elijah Cummings' megaphone goes silent

It’s the iconic image of the 2015 riots in Baltimore: the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., striding down the streets, a bullhorn cocked in his right hand.

Baltimore was in turmoil in the spring of 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. The city exploded into riots after police struggled to explain how Gray died. Twenty police officers were hurt. There were scores of fires and looting. The governor summoned the National Guard.

And so, Cummings stormed the streets of his hometown, night after night, wielding his bullhorn. The congressman beseeched people to get home and calm down.

Rep. Elijah Cummings pleading for protestors to go home at curfew rather than risk arrest in Baltimore, on April 29, 2015. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, File)

Rep. Elijah Cummings pleading for protestors to go home at curfew rather than risk arrest in Baltimore, on April 29, 2015. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, File)

“It’s time to go home!” implored Cummings. “Come on now. Go home!”

Cummings truly didn’t need a bullhorn to be heard. His resonant baritone often echoed off the marble corridors of the Cannon House Office Building and in the House chamber when the Maryland Democrat got revved up.

Cummings earned the megaphone thanks to a 2014 exchange with then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Issa abruptly ended a hearing with former IRS employee Lois Lerner examining whether the agency politicized the tax status of conservative organizations. Cummings was the top Democrat on the committee and was about to speak when Issa cut him off. Issa slammed the gavel on the dais and slashed his hand across his throat, ordering aides to cut Cummings’ microphone.

“We’re adjourned,” yelled Issa. “Close it down.”

Democrats howled in protest. Even Republicans asserted Issa’s conduct was repugnant. Democrats demanded that then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sanction Issa for his conduct.

Former Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., took notice of Cummings’ plight with Issa. Grayson sent Cummings the megaphone, along with a plaque reading, “The Gentleman Will Not Yield.” Cummings then deployed the tool to help ease the tension in Baltimore after the riots.

During the riots, the Baltimore Orioles were scheduled to play a home game at Camden Yards against the Chicago White Sox. Citing security concerns, the Orioles elected to play the game in an otherwise empty stadium. Cummings confided in me that he disagreed vehemently with the Orioles’ decision. He said the O’s should have opened up the stadium to all Baltimore schoolchildren in an effort to salve the wounds after the riots.

Notably, it was Major League Baseball which helped propel Cummings into the national spotlight.

In February 2008, the House Oversight Committee agreed to hear testimony from All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens. Clemens’ former trainer Brian McNamee told lawmakers he injected Clemens with human growth hormone (HGH) many times. The pitcher had asked the panel for an opportunity to try clearing his name.

“I have never taken steroids or HGH,” testified Clemens.

That’s where Cummings entered the national consciousness.

“It’s hard to believe you, sir,” boomed Cummings. “I hate to say that. You’re one of my heroes, but it’s hard to believe you!”

The clip has continued to play to this day on TV shows about doping and sports.

It’s unclear if Cummings cared much about ice hockey. But, a phenomenon in hockey helped bolster the status of the Maryland Democrat: getting the right matchup.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS DEAD AT 68

Hockey coaches strategize constantly to get certain defensive pairings on the ice at the same time as their opponent’s top offensive line. Republicans won control of the House in 2010 and promoted the aggressive Issa to the chairmanship of the Oversight panel. Such a scenario was seen as posing a problem for Democrats and then-President Obama. Former Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., was in line to serve as the top Democrat on the panel. But, Fox News was told at the time that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lacked confidence in Towns’ ability to defend the president and wrestle with Issa. Towns withdrew from the race. Cummings then defeated Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to become the leading Democrat on the panel, and Issa’s sparring mate.

Former Reps, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., succeeded Issa as chairs of the Oversight Committee. Gowdy led the Benghazi Committee. Pelosi made Cummings Gowdy’s dance partner on that panel, too. And, when Democrats won the House in 2018, Republicans made sure they had a good matchup against Cummings: Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio would serve as the ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee.

Cummings patrolled the streets of Baltimore by night with his bullhorn during the spring of 2015. But, the congressman double-shifted, driving to Washington, sans sleep, to battle with Chaffetz and Gowdy. Even as Baltimore melted down, Cummings faced big challenges an hour southwest of his home. The Benghazi investigation was coming to a head. The Oversight Committee was holding major hearings over misdeeds at the Secret Service and how it was protecting President Obama. There was an investigation into how the U.S. Capitol Police allowed a gyrocopter to land on West Front of the Capitol.

There were days where Cummings would walk the streets of Baltimore at night, drive himself to Washington the next morning, go back to Baltimore in the afternoon, return to Washington for evening votes and then head back for another shift on street patrol.

Amid all of that, Cummings found himself rushing to the House floor to vote, running out of the hearing about the gyrocopter incursion. I was already aboard a car of the underground tram linking the Rayburn House Office Building with the Capitol. Exhausted, Cummings lumbered onto the trolley, stretched out his legs and leaned his head against the Plexiglas window. Cummings closed his eyes, trying to marshal a moment of shuteye for the 38-second trip to the Capitol.

It’s likely the only kind of respite Cummings got those days – a bumpy, noisy ride on a subway car snaking beneath Independence Avenue.

The House of Representatives honored Cummings on Thursday afternoon with a moment of silence.

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“He’s now with the angels, out of pain,” said Baltimore native Pelosi between tears. “I didn’t know it was this close. I thought he was coming back in a few weeks.”

“A moment of silence will not be enough to respect the life of Elijah Cummings,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “What will be enough is if we follow his example for a lifetime.”