“We can never forget the role that he has played in searching for the truth,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a close friend of Cummings and fellow civil rights icon, said Thursday morning. “Members will be much more determined to pick up where Elijah left off. There can be no slowdown, or turning back.”
Cummings has been absent from Capitol Hill for weeks, sidelined with long-lingering health issues. But he spoke by phone on a near-daily basis to other investigators, including House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), even from his hospital bed, up until this week. Cummings had previously notified Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he might not be in Washington for the next few weeks, but seemed hopeful to return in the future.
“It’s created a really big hole for all of us,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) added. “He had so much more he could have given.”
With Cummings absent, Pelosi tapped Schiff, a close ally, as the point person in Democrats’ investigation into Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Had he been healthy, it’s possible that Cummings, not Schiff, would be in that role.
But Cummings’ colleagues acknowledged that his skill set — his soaring rhetoric, his mastery of committee rules and procedures, his relationships with Republicans — will be missed amid the caucus’ impeachment push.
“It’s a terrible blow to lose it, I mean just terrible,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said of Cummings’ voice, forcing back tears. “He was careful about how he used it but he wasn’t shy about using it either.”
In the interim, Pelosi has tapped Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) to lead the Oversight panel, though few expect her to take the role permanently. So far, there are only whispers about who will take the gavel, with some lawmakers and aides floating Oversight members like Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, or Connolly, another skilled messenger, to assume the post.
Some have speculated about the possibility of bringing in a caucus heavyweight, like Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, to fill the vacancy and lead the panel, though he is unlikely to back the idea, multiple aides said.
But the question of who will replace Cummings will soon become a weighty debate — and potentially, an intraparty clash — within the caucus over who will become one of the most public-facing figures of the Democrats’ impeachment probe.
“We can’t bring that voice back,” said Clay on Thursday, who declined to comment when asked whether he’s seeking the post. “In his legacy, I will take some of the lessons that I learned from him and convert that into my everyday work.”
The late Oversight Committee chairman checked all the boxes for Democratic leaders: he was a partisan warrior but beloved by lawmakers in both parties; a star inside the caucus and on TV; a commanding force on the committee dais; and a brutally effective cross-examiner who could make even the toughest witness cringe.
Cummings took the top role in the Oversight Committee in 2010 — leaping over Maloney despite her seniority on the panel — as a counterpunch to then-Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a thorn in the side of the Obama administration.
In 2014, Pelosi appointed Cummings as the top Democrat on the Benghazi select committee, a sign of her trust in the Maryland Democrat.
And when Democrats won the House in 2018, Pelosi tapped Cummings to lead the Oversight Committee, where he quickly became one of Trump’s top tormentors on the Hill. Trump attacked Cummings — a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus — as “racist,” although the presidential barbs didn’t appear to bother Cummings at all.
When Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to several federal crimes, including funneling payments to alleged Trump mistresses, Cummings organized a widely watched hearing featuring Cohen that Democrats say was one of the highlights of the 116th Congress.
“This is not about not liking the president. It’s about loving democracy. It’s about loving our country,” Cummings said at a July news conference with Pelosi, Schiff and Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler. “ That’s what this is all about. I’m begging, I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on.”
Top Democrats grappled with the loss of the 23-year House veteran in a closed-door meeting Thursday morning, where Pelosi became emotional about her “brother from Baltimore.”
“Little did we know how close we were, and I don’t know if he knew how close he was to the end,” Pelosi told the group of Democrats, according to an aide in the room. “We will proceed with what we are doing, as he would want us to do.”
Inside the meeting, several Democrats, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who himself recently lost his wife of 58 years, referenced one of Cummings’ most famous refrains — frequently asking himself and his colleagues about what they want to accomplish for the American public before they are “dancing with the angels.”
“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing? Did we play games?” Cummings said on the House floor in February.
Several Democrats emerged visibly shaken from the meeting. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, emerged from the room wiping away tears with a handkerchief. “We lost a great man, a great legislator,” the Georgia Democrat said in between sobs.
The sense of shock and grief was present for Democrats throughout the day Thursday, as the Pelosi delivered a lengthy eulogy to an unusually quiet House floor. A bouquet of white flowers sat on Cummings’ usual seat in the first row of the chamber.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a pastor and close friend, said Cummings became so well known for his oratory skills that Cleaver would sometimes joke he was a “bootleg preacher.”
“I reminded him often — we laughed about it — I said ‘you went to law school, I went to seminary. I don’t try to practice law, you don’t try to practice preaching,’” Cleaver said. “When I really wanted to make him feel better, I would come over and call him Bishop Elijah.”