SALISBURY, Md. — Eleven days after she buried her husband, a bleary-eyed Maya Rockeymoore Cummings went door-to-door in this rural enclave, stumping for Democrats.

“I’m here making sure you vote for Mayor Jake Day and for Angela Blake for council,” said the widow of congressman Elijah E. Cummings. “We vote, we win.”

It was the first Election Day since her surprise ascent to chair the Maryland Democratic Party, a post she would leave within days to seek her husband’s congressional seat. For two hours, she heard residents gripe about traffic and lament the Democratic presidential field. As she put her labradoodle puppy in her SUV for the 117-mile trek back to Baltimore, Day — who was on his way to winning a second term — rushed over to grasp her hand.

“I know you have a lot going on,” he said, “so I just wanted to let you know this means a lot.”

Rockeymoore Cummings was an unexpected choice for state party chair — a policy consultant and wife of a high-profile congressman, better known on Capitol Hill than in Annapolis.

She wooed rank-and-file party members who liked her deliberate outreach and liberal bona fides. Once in charge, she thrilled them by challenging senior Democrats and questioning the status quo. But her critiques, and a threat to withhold party funds from some Democrats, alienated key power brokers, even as Rockeymoore Cummings engineered an expensive reshaping of the party infrastructure.

Then her husband died.

In running to succeed him, Rockeymoore Cummings, 48, again finds herself an outsider, famous name and frequent national television appearances notwithstanding.

A relative newcomer to Baltimore who first voted in Maryland in 2014, she faces rivals with deep local roots in the crowded Feb. 4 primary, which probably will decide who represents the deeply Democratic district. Her husband’s two daughters — who were adults when she and Cummings married — are supporting other candidates. So is the late congressman’s longtime political mentor.

But Rockeymoore Cummings is unfazed.

“People don’t know what to make of me,” she said of party leaders. “They have no idea of my background and what my accomplishments have been in life. They just think that I rode in on the arm of my husband.”

At her campaign kickoff, filled with members of the church she attends and the sorority she belongs to, she declared: “What we need is an inclusion revolution. Are we ready for the fight?”

Jumping into politics

While Cummings was a revered native son of Baltimore, Rockeymoore is the daughter of an Air Force enlistee-turned-officer and grew up moving from base to base.

“It shaped me in lot of ways,” she said. “I was always around kids of all different backgrounds, living next to them and going to school with them and worshiping with them.”

She went to historically black Prairie View A&M University in Texas and earned graduate degrees in political science at Purdue. Her work in Washington included stints at the House Ways and Means Committee and as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), and jobs with the National Urban League, the Center for Policy Analysis and Research and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She met Cummings in 1998, when she interviewed him as part of her doctoral research.

In 2005, she launched Global Policy Solutions, a consulting firm that worked with foundations, government agencies and nonprofits. She later started her own nonprofit group. When a conservative watchdog group alleged earlier this year that the two entities collaborated in ways that violate Internal Revenue Service rules, she dismissed the complaint as a politically motivated attack on her husband. The IRS did not respond to requests for information about the status of the complaint.

Rockeymoore Cummings moved from the District to Baltimore in 2008, the year the couple got married. She said she tried to register to vote in Maryland that year, using the name Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, but the change was rejected because she had not legally adopted her husband’s last name. She still owned a home in the District, and continued voting there through 2012, then registered in Maryland in time for the 2014 election.

In 2017, around the time she ran for governor, she legally added “Cummings,” though she still used “Rockeymoore” for her consulting business. “I was living two existences based on where I was,” Rockeymoore Cummings said. “If I was in D.C., I was Dr. Rockeymoore. In Baltimore I was Mrs. Cummings. . . . Nobody in Maryland knew me as Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, who had a national reputation in her field.”

She dropped her gubernatorial bid three months later, when her husband became ill.

The eventual Democratic nominee, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, was trounced by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan after key Democrats stayed neutral or offered only tepid support. Upset at how Jealous was treated, Rockeymoore Cummings challenged party chair Kathleen Matthews, a former television reporter and wife of “Hardball” host Chris Matthews. She says Cummings told her bluntly: “You better win.”

She spent hours calling Democratic Central Committee members in all parts of the state, many of whom were newly elected and — like her — fired up about Jealous’s loss.

Theresa Dudley, first vice chair of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, said she was drawn to Rockeymoore Cummings because “she’s a new face . . . she’s experienced, and she’s no shrinking violet.”

Michele Gregory, of rural Wicomico County, ended a two-hour phone call with Rockeymoore Cummings thinking she was “not only knowledgeable about the issues down here, but she actually cared . . . like it mattered to her what happens on the lower Eastern Shore.”

Ruffling feathers

After defeating Matthews, Rockeymoore Cummings said her “first order of business” was introducing herself in Maryland’s inner political circles, where many knew her only as Cummings’s wife. The effort started slowly, with some senior leaders unhappy that Matthews had been ousted, said a state lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal rifts.

“They haven’t been helpful,” the lawmaker said. “You know, ‘You wanted this, you do it on your own.’ ”

Rockeymoore Cummings angered some Democrats by weighing in on the acrimonious fight this spring over who should become Maryland House speaker. Concerned that the choice could fall to a united Republican caucus, she threatened to withhold party funds from Democrats who didn’t back their caucus nominee. Her supporters hailed her “bold” push for party loyalty. But Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called the move “wholly inappropriate.”

“I don’t think Tom Perez would intervene in the Pelosi speaker race,” Lewis said in April, referring to the national Democratic Party chairman and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It just added fuel to the fire, causing folks to be splintered.”

Months later, the Legislative Black Caucus chose not to invite Rockeymoore Cummings to headline their unity breakfast because of the lingering resentment, according to one lawmaker familiar with the decision.

Many senior Democrats declined requests for comment about her for this story.

After Hogan described himself as coming from “the Ronald Reagan school of politics,” Rockeymoore Cummings outraged Republicans by calling the governor a “dog-whistle white nationalist.” She cited Reagan’s opposition to the civil rights movement, use of terms such as “welfare queen” and recently revealed racist comments to then-President Richard Nixon, and criticized Hogan’s sometimes charged rhetoric, which includes calling the General Assembly the “most pro-criminal group of legislators I’ve ever seen.”

Doug Mayer, a GOP political strategist and former Hogan aide, said Rockeymoore Cummings “lost all credibility” with the attack. “There’s nothing wrong with going and playing hardball politics, but accusations of racism are a whole other level,” Mayer said.

As party chair, Rockeymoore Cummings spent more money than she took in, hiring consultants, commissioning a poll and revamping the party’s online image. The party picked up several seats in November’s local elections.

She says she was employing a forward-looking strategy and had contributions in the pipeline that would keep the party financially stable. But her temporary successor said he was concerned about a lack of transparency, and had fired two consultants, ordered two others to justify their services and proposed a set of financial controls to limit how much latitude party chairs have in spending.

'What a husband tells a wife'

Rockeymoore Cummings says she wants to continue her husband’s fight for “the soul” of American democracy. While campaigning, she frequently says Cummings wanted her to run for his seat.

But Larry Gibson, a law professor who was her husband’s mentor and longtime friend, questions that claim. He is supporting rival candidate Kweisi Mfume, who represented Maryland’s 7th District for a decade before Cummings was elected.

“Elijah never told me he wanted her to replace him,” Gibson said. “But I don’t know what a husband tells a wife.”

Rockeymoore Cummings says she isn’t bothered by her critics, or that her late husband’s daughters are backing the candidacy of Harry Spikes, Cummings’s longtime staffer.

In Congress, she says, she would focus on improving education, addressing the wealth gap and providing greater access to health care.

After undergoing a long-planned prophylactic mastectomy on Nov. 15, Rockeymoore Cummings says she’s in full campaign mode, organizing and making fundraising calls.

In coming weeks, she plans to be out knocking on doors once again — this time going home-to-home in Baltimore and its suburbs, touting herself rather than other candidates.

“I want to represent the issues and I want to represent Elijah,” she told supporters at her campaign kickoff. “I want to carry his legacy forward and build upon that legacy.”

First in a series of profiles of the leading contenders to represent Maryland’s 7th Congressional District.