BALTIMORE – Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cumming, who died Thursday at age 68, was remembered as a moral voice of conscience in a divisive era — a leader who fought for civil rights and took on the White House as a prominent figure in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.
Born to a family of Southern sharecroppers, Cummings was a formidable orator who advocated for the poor in his black-majority district of Baltimore: "Steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives," former President Barack Obama said.
In a testament to Cummings' ability to forge friendships across the aisle during a time of intense political polarization, tributes poured in from across the political spectrum.
President Donald Trump tweeted his "condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see firsthand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader." He also ordered flags at the White House and other federal buildings to be flown at half-staff through Friday to honor Cummings.
Earlier this year, Cummings defended his city against Trump, who criticized the Democrat's district as a "rodent-infested mess" where "no human being would want to live." Cummings replied that government officials must stop making "hateful, incendiary comments" that distract the nation from its real problems, including mass shootings and white supremacy.
"Those in the highest levels of the government must stop invoking fear, using racist language and encouraging reprehensible behavior," Cummings said.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led investigations of the president's government dealings, including probes in 2019 relating to Trump's family members serving in the White House.
Obama, whose 2008 presidential bid counted Cummings as an early supporter, said he and his wife, Michelle, were "heartbroken" by the loss of their friend.
"He showed us all not only the importance of checks and balances within our democracy, but also the necessity of good people stewarding it," Obama said.
With Cummings' death, Americans "have lost a great leader at a time of crisis in our democracy," civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis said.
"When this nation needed him most, he became a moral voice 'crying in the wilderness,' and his words and actions called a reluctant nation to conscience," the Georgia Democrat said in a statement.
Words of praise also came from Cummings' Republican admirers.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Cummings as "a living legend in his native Baltimore" and said he "counted close friends and admirers from all across the political spectrum." House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called Cummings "a respected adversary" who was tough but fair.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a veteran Democrat from New York, will for now take over leadership of the House oversight committee, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the decision publicly.
The committee, authorized to investigate virtually any part of the federal government, is one of three conducting the House impeachment probe of Trump. Cummings was among the three chairmen to sign a letter seeking documents into whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden. The committees have issued subpoenas of witnesses after the Trump administration's refusal to cooperate with the impeachment probe and have jointly been meeting behind closed doors to hear testimony.
Separately, Cummings led an effort to gain access to Trump's financial records. His committee subpoenaed records from Mazars USA, an accounting firm that provided services to Trump. The panel demanded documents from 2011 to 2018 as it probed Trump's reporting of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. Last week, a federal appeals court ruled the records must be turned over.
Cummings died early Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital due to complications of longstanding health problems, according to his office. He had hoped to return to Congress within about a week after a medical procedure for which he hadn't offered details. He'd previously been treated for heart and knee issues.
His widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of Maryland's Democratic Party, said in a statement: "He worked until his last breath because he believed our democracy was the highest and best expression of our collective humanity and that our nation's diversity was our promise, not our problem."
Cummings was born Jan. 18, 1951. In grade school, a counselor told him he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly, and would never fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.
"I was devastated," Cummings told The Associated Press in 1996, shortly before winning his seat in Congress. "My whole life changed. I became very determined."
It steeled Cummings to prove that counselor wrong. He became not only a lawyer, but one of the most powerful orators in the Maryland statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first black House speaker pro tem, the member who presides in the speaker's absence. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.
Cummings began his long push for civil rights at age 11, when he helped integrate a swimming pool in Baltimore. This year, during a speech to the American Bar Association in April, Cummings recalled how he and other black children organized protests with help from their recreation leader and the NAACP.
Every day for a week, when the children tried to get into the pool, they were spit upon, threatened and called names, Cummings said; he said he was cut by a bottle thrown from an angry crowd.
"The experience transformed my entire life," he said.
Throughout his career, Cummings used his fiery voice to highlight the struggles and needs of inner-city residents. He believed in much-debated approaches to help the poor and addicted, such as needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of AIDS.
Cummings then chaired the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003 to 2004, employing a hard-charging, explore-every-option style to put the group in the national spotlight.
In 2015, when the death of black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sparked the city's worst riots in decades, Cummings carried a bullhorn in the streets and urged crowds to go home and respect a curfew. He spoke at Gray's funeral, asking lawmakers in the church to stand up to show Gray's mother they would seek justice.
"I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want," Cummings said, quoting from the Bible.
Witte reported from Annapolis. Associated Press Writer Alan Fram contributed from Washington.