When riots erupted on the streets of Baltimore City in 2015, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a son of sharecroppers, stood with a bullhorn in West Baltimore, urging residents to heed the curfew.
“I’d die for my people,” said Cummings, who stood between police and a raucous crowd protesting the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. The white bullhorn he carried had a gold label that read, “The gentleman will not yield.”
Cummings now chairs the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee, where he has taken a lead role in investigating the policies and actions of the Trump administration. He lives in what he describes as the “inner inner city” of Baltimore — the same neighborhoods that this past weekend attracted the ire of the president.
In tweets that have been widely condemned by Democrats and some Republicans, Trump called Baltimore a “rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.”
“Elijah Cummings spends all of his time trying to hurt innocent people through ‘Oversight,’ ” Trump tweeted, along with a video of a trash-filled backyard. “He does NOTHING for his very poor, very dangerous and very badly run district! Take a look . . . #BlacksForTrump2020.”
Cummings responded to the string of attacks from Trump by saying that he goes home to his district daily — he has lived in the same house for three decades — and wakes up every morning to “fight for my neighbors.”
“It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch,” the 68-year-old lawmaker tweeted. “But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
Trump’s condemnation of Cummings and his district — which also includes parts of Baltimore and Howard counties — seemed to be prompted by a segment on “Fox & Friends” that compared the living conditions in the district with those on the southern U.S. border.
Cummings has recently come down hard on the administration over reports of inhumane treatment at migrant detention centers. On July 18, he raised his voice while questioning Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan about reports that children had been held for days without fresh diapers or the opportunity to shower or brush their teeth.
“We are the United States of America. We are the greatest country in the world,” the congressman said. “We are the ones that can go anywhere in the world and save people, make sure that they have diapers, make sure that they have toothbrushes, make sure that they’re not laying around, defecating in some silver paper.”
The 12-term lawmaker was raised in Baltimore by his parents, South Carolina sharecroppers who later moved to Maryland’s largest city to escape poverty. They became preachers, instilled in him a strong moral code and drove him to pursue public service.
As a child, Cummings, one of seven siblings, helped integrate a local swimming pool and endured whites throwing bottles and rocks in protest.
He graduated from law school at the University of Maryland, was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in the early 1980s and served for 13 years. Cummings won his congressional seat in 1996 and has not faced a competitive race since joining Congress — usually winning more than 75 percent of the vote.
Cummings served for six years as the ranking minority member of the House Oversight Committee before Democrats won the majority last year. He defended former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during hearings about her role in securing government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, before the 2012 deadly attacks there, and he worked with Republicans to unearth information about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russian officials.
He is a liberal lawmaker who counts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as a partner in his causes and has long pushed to lower prescription drug prices, rebuking business executives who appeared before his committee after being accused of inflating prices.
The 2015 riots in Baltimore followed the funeral of Gray, a young black man who died of injuries sustained in police custody. Cummings emotionally eulogized Gray during the service, urging those in the pews to remember him as an individual, in addition to a symbol of injustice.
“Did anybody recognize Freddie when he was alive?” Cummings thundered. “Did you see him?”
Early in Cummings’s political career, he faced financial strains. According to a 1999 Baltimore Sun article, he owed more than $30,000 to the Internal Revenue Service (which he paid), and creditors took him to court five times to get him to pay $24,000 in overdue debts.
Cummings told the paper he lacked money partly because of a major surgery that drained his bank account and because he helped support three children: a daughter he had with his then-estranged wife and two children he had with other women.
In an era of hyperpartisanship, Cummings has said both sides need to be more willing to reach across the aisle. He suggests that his friendship with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, could be a model.
“We need to get away from party and deal with each other as human beings,” Cummings said this year.
Cummings has said he initially believed he might be able to work with Trump. He attended Trump’s inauguration, while many other Democrats stayed away, and he chatted with the president at the luncheon afterward about the need to lower prescription drug prices — a goal they share. But he said his hopes for a productive relationship were quickly dashed.
“He is a man who quite often calls the truth a lie and calls a lie the truth,” Cummings told The Washington Post last year, after the Democrats won the House majority and as he prepared to take over leadership of the Oversight Committee.
In recent years, Cummings has had health problems that have sometimes kept him out of the day-to-day action on Capitol Hill. Last year, he worked from his home in Baltimore for three months as he recovered from an infection in his knee.
In 2017, Cummings was away from Washington for about three months after surgery to repair a heart valve, followed by infection and complications. His wife, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, withdrew her bid for Maryland governor while he was in a hospital. She is now the executive director of Maryland’s Democratic Party.