Rep. Elijah Cummings, who pushed Flint water probe in Congress, dies at 68

Brian Witte
Associated Press

Annapolis, Md. – Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a sharecropper’s son who rose to become the chairman of a powerful U.S. House committee that investigated President Donald Trump, died early Thursday of complications from longstanding health issues, his office said. He was 68.

Cummings was a formidable orator who passionately advocated for the poor in his black-majority district, which encompasses a large portion of Baltimore as well as more well-to-do suburbs.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

One of his key moments came during the March 2016 congressional hearings into the Flint water crisis, when the then-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight committee called on then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for the decisions that led to the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water.

During a second-day hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Cummings directly questioned Snyder about emails from his chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, about what was happening in Flint.

“I am going to have to live with this my entire life,” Snyder responded to Cummings’ questioning.

Cummings told Snyder, “There are children that have to live with the damage that has been done the rest of their lives.”

When he became chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee in January, Cummings led multiple investigations of Trump’s governmental dealings, including probes in 2019 relating to the president’s family members serving in the White House.

Trump responded by criticizing the Democrat’s district as a “rodent-infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” The comments came weeks after Trump drew bipartisan condemnation following his calls for Democratic congresswomen of color to get out of the U.S. “right now,” and go back to their “broken and crime-infested countries.”

On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted his “warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader.” His brief tweet made no reference to their past feuds.

Cummings replied to Trump's "rodent-infested" comments that government officials must stop making “hateful, incendiary comments” that only serve to divide and 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 in a speech at the National Press Club.

He also reopened the congressional investigation into the Flint crisis, requesting from state officials documents that Cummings argued hadn't been turned over by the Snyder administration, which insisted it had passed along everything. 

"I'm not done with Flint," Cummings told The Detroit News in late November 2018.

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office sent "tens of thousands" of Flint-related documents to Cummings, but it was unclear how many were new and how many were redundant. 

Cummings also had raised questions over whether Snyder lied in his testimony about when he learned about the 2014-15 Legionnaires' disease outbreak in the Flint area, which killed at least 12 residents and sickened another 79 individuals. He did so after hearing of contradictory testimony in an involuntary manslaughter preliminary exam of Snyder's health and human services director by the governor's urban issues adviser.

When Democrats won back control of the U.S. House in 2018 and he was to become chairman of the Oversight Committee, Cummings said he was likely to bring Snyder back before Congress.

"It is very difficult for me to sleep at night with what happened and continues to happen to Flint — that wonderful municipality," Cummings told The Detroit News in 2018.

His work for Flint and for his own city drew praise Thursday from Michigan lawmakers.

Cummings was a strong advocate who “always stood tall” in the eyes of Flint residents, said U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint.

“Elijah was one of the first members of Congress to visit Flint, afterward opening an investigation into the water crisis,” Killdee said in a statement. “I will always remember working side-by-side with Elijah to bring much needed resources and justice to the people of Flint.”

Cummings was a “true leader and a giant of the House” who was a fierce advocate of Baltimore, said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. Upton and Cummings “shared a special bond” over Cumming’s representation of Baltimore, where Upton’s wife’s family lives.

“He was a role model, mentor, and friend to members on both sides of the aisle whose presence in Congress will be missed,” Upton said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, who served on House Oversight with Cummings, called Cummings' death "a deep loss for our country."

"I served with him in the majority and the minority," Lawrence said. "He never wavered in his professionalism nor his commitment to getting to the truth." 

Cummings’ long career spanned decades in Maryland politics. He rose through the ranks of the Maryland House of Delegates before winning his congressional seat in a special election in 1996 to replace former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who left the seat to lead the NAACP.

Cummings was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008. By 2016, Cummings was the senior Democrat on the House Benghazi Committee, which he said was “nothing more than a taxpayer-funded effort to bring harm to Hillary Clinton’s campaign” for president.

Throughout his career, Cummings used his fiery voice to highlight the struggles and needs of inner-city residents. He was a firm believer in some much-debated approaches to help the poor and addicted, such as needle exchange programs as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS.

A key figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry, Cummings had been hoping to return to Congress after a medical procedure he said would only keep him away for a week. His statement then didn’t detail the procedure. He had previously been treated for heart and knee issues.

Cummings’ 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 the formal inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, the former vice president.

The committees have issued multiple subpoenas of witnesses in the face of 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 has 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 that the records must be turned over to the House.

Shortly after Cummings’ death after 2 a.m., Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, his constituents began mourning. Maryland’s state Senate president, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and others praised Cummings’ service and friendship.

In a statement, his widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of Maryland’s Democratic Party, said “Congressman Cummings was an honorable man who proudly served his district and the nation with dignity, integrity, compassion and humility. 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 Cummings he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly, and he would never fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer.

“I was devastated,” Cummings told The Associated Press in 1996, shortly before he won 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 statehouse, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become the first black House speaker pro tem. He would begin his comments slowly, developing his theme and raising the emotional heat until it became like a sermon from the pulpit.

Cummings was quick to note the differences between Congress and the Maryland General Assembly, which has long been controlled by Democrats.

“After coming from the state where, basically, you had a lot of people working together, it’s clear that the lines are drawn here,” Cummings said about a month after entering office in Washington in 1996.

Cummings 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.

He cruised to big victories in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, which had given Maryland its first black congressman in 1970 when Parren Mitchell was elected.

In 2015, when the death of black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sparked the worst riots the city had seen in decades, Cummings was in the streets, carrying a bullhorn and urging crowds to go home and respect a curfew. He spoke at Gray’s funeral, asking all lawmakers in the church to stand up to show Gray’s mother they would seek justice for her son.

“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.

Detroit News Staff Writers Craig Mauger and Beth LeBlanc contributed