Term as conscience of Congress

Cummings: The Maryland representative looks back over his two years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

September 18, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has had legacy on his mind this month.

Winding down a two-year stint as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Baltimore Democrat said he hopes history is kind to his tenure at the helm of the largest minority caucus in the House of Representatives.

The caucus, which has 39 Democratic members in the House, is as divided as it has ever been. Republicans control Congress and the White House, making it harder to gain a foothold for the group's priorities on health care, education, small business and a balance of local and national security. And Cummings noted that the White House, which operated on an open-door policy toward the caucus under President Bill Clinton, has been downright cold.

Still, he said, "I remember when I decided to run for chairman of the caucus, and a number of people said: `You must be crazy. You've got a Republican president, a Republican House and a Republican Senate.'"

That Republican trifecta has sometimes made efforts to push the priorities of a group that traditionally leans liberal a Sisyphean affair.

"There is no working with the Republican Congress," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, one of two founding members still serving in the House. "They make up their mind what they're going to pass. There's no amendments, the decisions are made, there's no conferences. It's made this a very difficult time."

Cummings, 53, who has represented Maryland's 7th Congressional District since 1996, took over as caucus chairman in December 2002, just before the start of the 108th Congress. Normally, the chairman's term begins in January. But, filling a role that had previously transformed Kweisi Mfume into one of Congress' most recognizable spokesmen on African-American issues, Cummings stepped forward to criticize the Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott, for praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential bid.

The group, which celebrated its 34th year this month at its annual convention, has endured a bumpy road in Washington ever since.

The black caucus has been granted a single meeting with President Bush in the past 20 months. And that occurred only after caucus members staged a virtual sit-in at the White House and threatened to take their case against the U.S. policy toward Haiti to the news media camped outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

They were excluded last year from the president's trip to Africa - and retaliated by refusing to attend a debriefing on his return.

This summer, caucus members - all of whom are Democrats - challenged Ralph Nader to call off his independent run for the White House. He rejected their pleas.

Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama freshman, expressed frustration: "We've been marginalized by the Republican leadership, marginalized by the White House. No one seems terribly interested in even soliciting support from the CBC."

But, Davis added, Cummings "has done an excellent job in spite of those constraints."

"There have been numerous issues that threatened to divide the caucus in the past two years, from Iraq to various social controversies," Davis said. "One thing Cummings has done exceptionally well is to figure out what we agree upon and focus his leadership around that."

Members count among the black caucus' achievements during Cummings' chairmanship the broadest-ever support this year for their proposed federal budget. More than one-fourth of the House - 119 members - voted in favor of the caucus' package of proposed spending and cuts that would have fully funded the president's No Child Left Behind education law and slashed funding for a missile defense system.

The group sponsored for the first time two nationally televised debates in Baltimore and Detroit before the presidential primaries began.

Priorities under Cummings' watch include universal health care, class equality, civil rights protection and improving security at home and at U.S. borders. He is credited with shifting the group from the left toward its newer, more centrist members, such as Davis and Rep. Denise L. Majette of Georgia. And Cummings has reached out to black legislators to carry forth the group's agenda in statehouses around the country.

"Elijah really reached out to bring the state legislators together with the members of Congress," Clarence Davis, a Baltimore delegate, said after a caucus convention luncheon for state legislators. "He listens to us."

Cummings said that's the legacy he's hoping for.

"You know where I got that? Cas [Casper R.] Taylor and Ben Cardin. Both of them were speakers of the [Maryland] House, and they showed by example that a leader sits and listens carefully."

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