The final career decision Elijah E. Cummings will probably ever make comes as welcome news for both Democrats who could become the next president — and not very comforting news for any of the Republicans who might get the job instead.
When Cummings announced Tuesday that he would seek to remain as a Baltimore congressman, he ended (at nearly the last possible moment) almost a year of public pondering about running instead for Maryland’s open Senate seat.
The uncertainty had infused that contest with plenty of suspense — mainly because polling showed that, despite a lack of fundraising or organizational effort, he was well-positioned to defeat both the Democratic congressional colleagues who have already been campaigning and raising money for months, Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards.
Cummings, who turned 65 last month, is a lock to win an 11th full House term. After that, the main suspense about what he’ll get to do with the rest of his political life is largely out of his control.
If Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernard Sanders wins the presidency, Cummings' principal assignment will likely remain as it has been the past five years: The most prominent and highest-ranking defender of a fellow Democrat’s administration from the ranking minority party member’s seat at the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the premier congressional venue for probing malfeasance, as well as maladroitness in the executive branch.
(He has remained officially neutral in the presidential race while acting also as the top Democrat on the Select Committee on Benghazi. How much longer that panel remains in existence is at least partly linked to Clinton’s presidential fortunes.)
If the Republicans retake the White House, though, Cummings would be called on to develop a different skill set quickly. His committee position means he would play a principal role in deciding when the Democrats will call for a House investigation of the new administration and on what grounds. On the pretty safe assumption Republicans hold the House, no matter who’s at the top of the ticket, he would also take the lead in persuading the public and the GOP to treat the request seriously, rather than dismiss it as so much partisan witch-hunting.
As the son of a preacher, a former trial attorney and an officeholder since joining the Maryland Legislature 33 years ago, Cummings is well-practiced at moderating his tone to suit the moment. On the committee, he generally comes off as assertive but contained, boosting the dramatic effect of his moments of high dudgeon in defense of Obama administration officials or his podium-thumping exhortations about economic or racial justice.
His forceful voice on Oversight has already made him one of the most influential — and nationally recognized — among the 42 House Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus. But the opportunity to retain that platform wasn’t mentioned in his statement explaining his decision to remain in the House rather than try for the Senate.
Instead, he said he decided staying put was his best option for promoting not only his home town’s interests at a time of political transition — a new mayor as well as a new senator will be elected in November — but also his progressive policy priorities: Boosting home ownership, job opportunities, access to medical care and educational advancement for the poor while making voting easier and overhauling the federal criminal justice system.
Cummings has cultivated this other role as an outspoken champion of economic equity by spending considerable time in the past year traveling with one of the Senate’s liberal standard-bearers, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to a series of forums around the country attended by hundreds of enthusiastic activists on the left. The so-called Middle Class Prosperity Project aims to gather testimony that will inform a legislative platform to be delivered to the presidential winner.
After the Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, party leaders decided their top Oversight member, Edolphus Towns of New York, would be a poor counter-puncher as the GOP amped up its new powers to investigate the Obama White House. When Towns stepped, aside the leadership engineered Cummings as the replacement, ignoring seniority as they bypassed Carolyn B. Maloney of New York.
Cummings quickly emerged as a national figure because of his aggressive clashes with the Republicans during investigations into the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal and allegations that the IRS targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny. The congressman’s profile went up again last year because of his passionate defense of Clinton during her day testifying before the Benghazi panel, and his prominence in quelling the Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Even while playing the part of vigorous partisan combatant, Cummings has had some success getting Republican cooperation on the committee to hold investigations of price gouging by prescription drug wholesalers, predatory practices by mortgage lenders and the black market for weapons traffickers. (He’s one of the few members to have spoken publicly about the shooting death of a close relative, a teenage nephew murdered in Norfolk, Va., in 2011.)
Now that his lingering flirtation with the Senate has been called off, Cummings has the rest of the year to ponder his two potential livelihoods in 2017. Either he’ll be lead defense attorney on the Hill for his second Democratic presidential client, or he’ll learn to become the partisan truth-demanding fist inside the glove of good-government collaboration with a Republican president.
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