It was the kind of exclusionary perch of power both men fought.
Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, was memorialized at the Capitol on Thursday after losing his long fight against illness last week.
Like King, Cummings was a civil rights leader and possessed the emotional oratory of a Baptist preacher. Like King, Cummings was physically attacked in the fight for equality. Cummings was an 11-year-old playing in a public pool when a racist mob threw rocks and bottles at him and his friends. Like King, Cummings was an ardent champion of workers, in his case, federal workers.
He often displayed his oratorical skills in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the committee meets, dressing down Republican colleagues or Trump administration witnesses. Those skills also were on display when he addressed a gathering of federal employees in 2015.
“It’s the things that you do when you’re unseen, unnoticed, unappreciated and unapplauded that matters most,” he told a conference of the National Treasury Employees Union. “I know sometimes . . . you get a little discouraged. But I’ve come by here to let you know I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back. I’ve got your back,” he said, his voice rising as the crowd roared.
“People do not seem to understand that so many people come to government knowing that they’re not going to make the kind of money that they would make in the private sector. But they come to government to feed their souls, to help other people, to lift them up, to make their lives better. And that’s you and you and you and you. And so, I thank you.”
Federal workers loved Elijah Cummings.
“When I learned of his passing, I felt justice tilted away from us,” Eric Young, a federal correctional officer in Miami, said in an email. “He was the balance beam in Congress reaching across the aisle for us — ensuring fairness for the average working American. He will always be remembered as a champion in the Congress . . . who forcibly righted wrongs” for federal workers.
“My heart is very heavy in the loss of Congressman Elijah Cummings,” said Darlene H. Young (no relation to Eric Young) by email, speaking personally and not as a State Department employee. She chairs the Blacks in Government National Board of Directors. “The federal workers have lost a Champion for Justice,” she wrote. “Rest in peace our Justice Angel.”
What impressed Matt Biggs, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, was that “even though he’s from Baltimore, which certainly has a good number of federal workers but not the numbers in the D.C. area, he sought out and became chairman of House Oversight in large part because he wanted to protect our federal civil service . . . and he wanted to be in the strongest position in Congress to fight back against those attacks. Federal workers are better off for it.”
As chairman of the Oversight subcommittee on government operations, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) had a close relationship with Cummings. Connolly’s role as head of a panel with broad reach makes him a main contender to be the next chairman of the full committee. He and Cummings were among regional legislators who led the fight against proposals to cut federal pay, benefits and workplace due-process rights.
Cummings believed “the federal worker is a hard-working civil servant who serves our constituents and needs to be treated fairly,” Connolly said by phone. “And that was absolutely part of his passion. And, you know, he went toe-to-toe with the Republicans when they would attempt various and sundry nasties to get at the federal worker.”
One of those Republicans was Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chaired the Oversight Committee before Cummings. Their strong political differences did not prevent them from developing what Chaffetz called a “true friendship.”
They had serious public fights in committee hearings when Chaffetz was chairman and Cummings was the top Democrat. But what many didn’t realize, Chaffetz recalled, was “we were often chuckling behind the microphone because we couldn’t believe what we were hearing, or some member would do something stupid and we’d both laugh.”
In a demonstration of bipartisanship that seems like a relic of a saner era, Cummings and Chaffetz traded visits to each other’s districts — locations that could not be more different.
“I had a great deal of respect for him,” Chaffetz said, “and really grew to love the person.”