Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) sadly passed away Thursday morning, but I can still clearly remember his hand moving toward mine one day during a House Oversight Committee hearing — slowly, but with purpose. He wasn’t going to interrupt my opening statement or my questioning of a witness. But he had something he wanted to say right after I was done: The witness had been highly critical of the then-Budget Committee chairman, former speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). I didn’t like what she’d said, and I spent my allotted five minutes letting her know it. Then Elijah’s hand came toward mine, like a father getting ready to tell his adult son he could have done better.
“You were too tough on that witness, son,” he said. “The fact that you can do something does not mean you should do it. I understand you like Paul — he’ll be fine. Make sure she is, too, when this is all over.”
There are more than a few YouTube videos of Elijah and me disagreeing with each other over the years. Unfortunately, there are no videos capturing his calls of encouragement to me. Or of me pushing him in his wheelchair — he would have done the same for me — because I wanted to talk with him while we walked. Or of Elijah going out of his way to encourage a member of my staff because he knew what it was like to be a young professional of color; because his desire to see her succeed exceeded any and every political difference they may have had.
In reality, less than 1 percent of our lives, even as members of Congress, are captured on social media, C-SPAN or in print. After that, there’s still the other 99 percent of life. The part where you call each other when one of you is having a bad day. Where you hire an idealistic young person in your offices because a colleague asks you to give someone a chance. Where you let your colleague across the aisle know something is coming, so he can prepare for it and not be surprised. The part of life where you share painful details of real life because you know that your colleague will never violate your trust. That’s the full picture of my friendship with Elijah Cummings: the meager 99 percent of life that’s not captured when you’re in politics.
He was a fighter. He was a more than formidable political opponent. He could punch hard. And then the hearing would end, and life would begin. He was my friend, and it is that part of life working with Elijah that I will remember and cherish the best and the longest.
I met him while riding on a bus in Mexico. It was my first congressional trip. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous one and, consequently, there were few members who had signed up to go. It was late in the evening and everyone was either asleep or trying to get there, but we sat beside each other and he told me of our mutual connection to South Carolina.
His family had roots there. He still had relatives there and visited periodically. I asked, “Why did your family leave South Carolina, Mr. Cummings?”
We were separated by quite a few years, age-wise, but at that moment, his reply reflected a separation that was more like many generations: “To get an education, son … to get an education.” And I immediately knew what he meant. He turned to look out the window into the darkness of a foreign land, leaving me to dwell on the starkly different paths that we’d taken to find ourselves side by side on a bus, in another country, both serving in Congress.
Our life experiences were different. Our political beliefs could not have been more different. We disagreed on most issues, from how to address gun violence to which questions are appropriately asked during a decennial census. We both had a passion for criminal justice reform, but even when we agreed on the destination, we frequently had different paths to get there. He championed “ban the box” legislation, while I thought there was a different route to giving people a second chance. The political environment we served in together could not have been more challenging: the Benghazi hearings, the Fast and Furious hearings and hearings surrounding the 2016 election. Our committee assignments and respective leadership teams seemed to thrust us into almost every contentious issue facing Congress. Yet we never had a cross word outside of a committee room during the years we served together.
To the contrary, I had genuine affection for Elijah, and I admired the path he took, over the course of his life, rising to become a leader in Congress.
He knew I could never fully understand the South Carolina his family had to leave, that he might have more opportunity to get an education. He didn’t need me to understand what I could never understand — he needed me to try. He needed me to acknowledge the pain that others felt, and still feel, and be mindful of it. And I needed him to never lose hope that the story of our shared background could have a happier ending. That progress could be made. That things can change.
He never lost that hope.
It’s not the hearings or political squabbles I’ll remember. I’ll remember his laugh. I’ll remember the commanding voice that made him the most compelling orator in Congress. I’ll remember his hand coming toward mine to let me know that a piece of advice was headed my way, once I stopped talking.
Members of Congress don’t always give advice to (or take advice from) one another. Most don’t have the kind of relationship where you can, but we did. We did because we tried to understand where the other had come from, what made us who we were, why we believed what we believed; and because we shared a respect for the law, the justice system and the institution of the House of Representatives. We both believed that even in partisan politics, sometimes justice could carry the day.
We served in a Congress that was often bitter and divided. None of that exists where he is now. If I make it to the other side, we will serve together again in a place of only peace and forgiveness. I’ll listen for his voice and look for his hand, reaching out to try to teach someone how to be better.