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Elijah Cummings, Democratic congressman who took on Trump, dead at 68

Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings, a sharecropper's son who became the powerful chairman of a U.S. House committee investigating U.S. President Donald Trump, died early Thursday because of complications from longstanding health challenges. He was 68.

As House oversight and reform committee chair, he led multiple investigations of Trump

Elijah E. Cummings, House oversight and reform committee chair shown during a debate in June, died on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, a sharecropper's son who rose to become the powerful chairman of a U.S. House committee that investigated President Donald Trump, died early Thursday of complications from longstanding health issues, his office said. He was 68.

Cummings 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 well-to-do suburbs.

As chair of the House oversight and reform committee, Cummings, a Democrat, 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.

Cummings's committee, authorized to investigate virtually any part of the federal government, is one of three conducting the House impeachment probe of Trump. Cummings was among the three chairmen to sign a letter seeking documents into the formal inquiry into whether Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the family of Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, the former vice-president. The committees have issued multiple subpoenas of witnesses in the face of the Trump administration's refusal to co-operate with the impeachment probe and have jointly been meeting behind closed doors to hear testimony.

Separately, Cummings led an effort to gain access to Trump's financial records. His committee subpoenaed records from Mazars USA, an accounting firm that has provided services to Trump. The panel demanded documents from 2011 to 2018 as it probed Trump's reporting of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that the records must be turned over to the House.

"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," said Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, his wife and the chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

"It's been an honour to walk by his side on this incredible journey. I loved him deeply and will miss him dearly."

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called him "a leader of towering character and integrity" in her weekly news conference.

"He lived the American dream, and he wanted it for everyone else," Pelosi said.

'Courageous leader and trailblazer'

According to caucus rules of seniority, Carolyn Maloney of New York would be expected to take Cummings's place as the oversight chair.

Maloney said Cummings was "a courageous leader and trailblazer for our nation, and a true friend and mentor to me. His open, gracious, fighting spirit will always be an inspiration."

Trump this summer characterized Cumming'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 colour 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 behaviour," Cummings said in a speech at the National Press Club.

Using social media, the president paid tribute to the Democrat.

"I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader," said Trump. "His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!"

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore Mayor Bernard Young and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson were among others expressing condolences.

"Put simply, he was a man of God who never forgot his duty to fight for the rights and dignity of the marginalized and often forgotten," said Young.

As governor, it will be Hogan's responsibility to set dates for a primary and general election to fill the seat of Maryland's 7th District.

Congressman since 1996

Cummings's 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.

Cummings, left, led several probes into U.S. President Donald Trump. (Yuri Gripas, Leah Millis/Reuters)

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.

A key figure in the Trump impeachment inquiry, Cummings had been hoping to return to Congress after a medical procedure he said would only keep him away for a week. His statement then didn't detail the procedure. He had previously been treated for heart and knee issues.

Impeachment inquiry

Cummings was born on Jan. 18, 1951. In grade school, a counsellor told Cummings he was too slow to learn and spoke poorly, and he would never fulfil 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 counsellor wrong. 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.

'Lines are drawn'

"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.

In 2015, when the death of black Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sparked the worst riots in the city in decades, Cummings was in the streets, carrying a bullhorn and urging crowds to go home and respect a curfew. He spoke at Gray's funeral, asking all lawmakers in the church to stand up to show Gray's mother they would seek justice for her son.

"I want justice, oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want," Cummings said, quoting from the Bible.

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