When the Democratic Caucus offered ideas that Elijah Cummings thought fell short, his voice would be heard. “Come on now, we are better than that,” he would thunder. | Credit: Courtesy

Elijah Cummings: 1951-2019

One of the sad oddities of American political life is that during every session of Congress, one or more members passes away. For me, this strikes especially close to home at this time of year, as we lost my husband, Walter, on October 28, 1997. And now, the constituents, staff, and colleagues of Congressmember Elijah Cummings, and indeed people across the entire country, are mourning his passing and celebrating his legacy.

Watching Elijah’s memorial service reminded me of some of our other connections. He came to the House after a special election in 1996, so he was technically in Walter’s class as its most senior member. He mentored Walter and me from our first days in Congress. Among the dignitaries, staff, and clergy who spoke at Elijah’s service was President Clinton, who also graced us with his lovely remembrances at the gathering held for Walter in Washington before his funeral in Santa Barbara.

As Elijah’s career in the House progressed, so did the weight of his responsibilities. Elijah was the “conscience of the Congress,” a powerful voice against inequality and bigotry and a passionate advocate for justice. He was also a skilled legislator and an even better investigator. That’s why Speaker Pelosi ensured he would serve as the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee and the Select Committee on Benghazi.

In his final months, even though he was in terrible physical pain, Elijah fought tirelessly against the grave threats to American democracy that have gripped our nation. I was awed, but not surprised, when he responded to the obscene attack on his beloved Baltimore from the highest officeholder in the land with such grace and generosity of spirit.

As worried as Elijah was about the current state of our politics, he always tried to build bridges and see the best in everyone. This was the essence of his goodness and what made him such a special person and remarkable public servant.

Rep. Cummings visits with Baltimore students interning at Johns Hopkins.

I have many memories of this great man, but one image sticks out because it happened several times. When the Democratic Caucus was conducting an internal debate about how to proceed on an issue and members offered ideas that Elijah thought fell short, his voice would be heard. “Come on now, we are better than that,” he would thunder. He spread his big hands, and his powerful voice boomed through the room. He was our own Elijah the Prophet, cajoling us to aim higher.

I saw a picture online of the sign outside the Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., where I lived for several years. It says “Rest in Power Rep. Elijah Cummings.” Indeed, rest in power and peace, my friend.

Lois Capps served as Santa Barbara’s 24th Congressional District representative from 1998 to 2017, when she retired from office.


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