Congress

Democrats in tears after first caucus gathering since Cummings’ death

Leaders, members share memories of Baltimore Democrat during weekly whip meeting

Capitol workers lower the flag to half staff after the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Several House Democrats on Thursday left their first caucus gathering since the death of their colleague, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, weeping or holding back tears. 

The House Oversight and Reform chairman’s death left Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, one of the panel’s subcommittee chairs, inconsolable. He exited Democrats’ weekly whip meeting Thursday in a stream of tears, not stopping to talk to colleagues or reporters as he usually would. 

Connolly was far from the only member reacting to Cummings’ death — several left the whip meeting with somber faces and wet eyes.

[Rep. Elijah Cummings fondly remembered by Hill Democrats, Republicans]

Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester choked back tears as she stopped to talk to CQ Roll Call about the loss of her colleague. 

“It is a sad day,” she said. “He exemplified the dignity and decorum and intellect that this body aspires to and, personally for me, he’s just someone I really respect. Just how he carried himself, how he just had the vision of what he was blessed to have and wanted that for all Americans and how he fought for our democracy. He’s going to be really missed.”

[Elijah E. Cummings: A life in photos]

Blunt Rochester said there was “a lot of shock and surprise” at the news.

“He was just recently, he had conversations with the leadership about the work. Literally to the day that he passed he was still working for this country,” she said. 

The whip meeting had a “real somber tone” as members shared their memories and stories about Cummings, Blunt Rochester added. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn all gave heartfelt tributes during the meeting, describing Cummings as a friend and a hero, according to Rep. Joe Neguse.

“We lost a giant,” the Colorado Democrat said.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis wiped a tear off his face as he talked to reporters about his memories of Cummings, including how people would often mistake him for the Maryland Democrat. 

“Just this past weekend I was traveling in South Carolina and people kept saying, ‘I’m from Baltimore’ or ‘My folks live in Baltimore,’” Lewis said. “And I would have to share, ‘I don’t represent Baltimore. I represent Atlanta, and I’m John Lewis. Elijah is a close friend of mine.’ I said it so many times on the planes and in the airports.” 

Other members visibly held it together but said they were heartbroken and had plenty of kind words to share about Cummings.

“He was a workhorse, not a showhorse,” Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson said, noting Cummings’ example will be a guiding force for his colleagues.

“He gave everything to his work here. And he did it as a gentleman,” he added. “If his mother and father were alive, they would be proud of the way that their son conducted himself. Even when he was being attacked ... he responded with dignity.”

Johnson said that Cummings’ death was unexpected, especially since he was just on a caucus phone call Sunday talking strategy as Democratic leaders and committee chairs updated members on the impeachment inquiry.

“He was not planning on passing away. He was planning on living,” he said. “And so I don’t know how dire his situation was but I do know that Elijah Cummings fought to live. He was hopeful and optimistic about the future, his future as well as the future of the country. And we’re going to miss him.”

Hoyer, dean of the Maryland delegation, honored Cummings in a floor speech immediately following the whip meeting.

“In a time of confrontation and disagreement and anger and, yes, sometimes hate, he was a beacon of civility, of fairness, of justice,” Hoyer said.

He talked about Cummings’ Baltimore roots and fierce commitment to his district. In the days after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April 2015 and the unrest and violence that followed, Cummings was out in his community talking to his constituents.

“He was loved in the city of Baltimore. At a time of great distress in the city of Baltimore, it was Elijah Cummings in the streets bringing calm and peace,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer referenced the specific loss that his House colleagues and Congress as an institution would feel with Cummings death.

“We knew his wit, we knew his devotion to the cause of making government work for the people,” Hoyer said.

Later that morning Pelosi, a native of Baltimore, shared her own thoughts about Cummings during her weekly press conference, calling him “my brother in Baltimore.”

“In the Congress, Elijah was considered a North Star,” she said.

The speaker noted that Cummings always said that “our children are our living messengers for a future we will never see” and that he worked to make sure the future would be better for them.

“He lived the American dream and he wanted it for everyone else,” she said. 

Pelosi said HR 3, the Democrats’ prescription drug pricing bill, will be renamed after Cummings. Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal suggested it during a hearing on the measure Thursday morning, she said.

Several members remarked Thursday how the House will not be the same without Cummings.

“We are a lesser place for losing him,” Hoyer said. “Like the prophet for whom he was named, he was taken from us too young, too soon, too suddenly.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.