Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings died early Thursday at Johns Hopkins Hospital due to complications from longstanding health challenges, his congressional office said. He was 68.
Cummings hadn't returned to work after having a medical procedure that he said would only keep him away for about a week. He hadn't taken part in a roll call vote since Sept. 11, and missed a September hearing on Washington, D.C., statehood.
His statement on his leave didn't detail the procedure. He previously was treated for heart and knee issues.
Cummings is survived by his wife, Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, and three children.
"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," Rockeymoore Cummings said in a statement. "I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly."
The American flag flew half-staff over the White House and the Capitol on Thursday in his honor.
A sharecropper's son, Cummings became the powerful chairman of a U.S. House committee that investigated President Donald Trump and 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.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Cummings led multiple investigations of the president'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."
Cummings replied 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.
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 continued his rise in Congress. In 2016, he 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.
Cummings was an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential bid in 2008.
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Former President Barack Obama says he and Michelle "are heartbroken" over the passing of their friend, Elijah Cummings.
Obama says that as chairman of the House oversight committee, Cummings "showed us all not only the importance of checks and balances within our democracy, but also the necessity of good people stewarding it."
Obama's statement calls the Democrat from Maryland "steely yet compassionate, principled yet open to new perspectives" and "steadfast in his pursuit of truth, justice, and reconciliation."
Obama said "it's a tribute to his native Baltimore that one of its own brought such character, tact, and resolve into the halls of power every day," and he hopes Cummings' example will "inspire more Americans to pick up the baton and carry it forward in a manner worthy of his service."
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.
Cummings was born on 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 went on to graduate from Howard University and the University of Maryland School of Law.
He became not only a lawyer but one of the most powerful orators in the Maryland House of Delegates, where he entered office in 1983. He rose to become House speaker pro tem, the first black delegate to hold the position. 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.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he was deeply saddened by Cummings' passing and called on all Marlyanders to mourn.
"Congressman Cummings leaves behind an incredible legacy of fighting for Baltimore City and working to improve people's lives. He was a passionate and dedicated public servant whose countless contributions made our state and country better," Hogan's statement said.
Hogan will be charged with calling for a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of the term, under Maryland election law.
Cummings Remembered as a Fighter for the American Dream
In the wake of his death, politicians on Capitol Hill and locally are sharing their thoughts on Cummings' life and legacy.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who grew up in Cummings' district, told reporters at her weekly press conference that she is "devastated" by the death of her "brother in Baltimore."
She added that Cummings "lived the American dream and he wanted it for everyone else."
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said Cummings was a fighter for Baltimore, the region and the nation.
"The Congressman holds a special place in the hearts of Washingtonians — not only as an alum of Howard University where he served as the Student Government President — but for helping us forge ahead on our path to DC Statehood," Bowser's statement read. "We know he will rest in peace and power."
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said Cummings' "calm but firm hand will be missed on the Oversight Committee as it proceeds with the difficult work ahead."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Cummings a "dedicated public servant." And Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Cummings "stood as a symbol for the heights one could reach if they paid no mind to obstacles, naysayers and hate."
Maryland Senate President Mike Miller called Cummings an icon and one of the people he most admired in Maryland politics.
And Baltimore Mayor Jack Young says Cummings was a gifted social justice crusader. The mayor said Cummings wasn't afraid to speak out "against brutal dictators bent on oppression, unscrupulous business executives who took advantage of unsuspecting customers, or even a U.S. President. He was, put simply, a man of God who never forgot his duty to fight for the rights and dignity of the marginalized and often forgotten."