In Obama, Cummings finds his rising star

November 09, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,

Washington - Barack Obama liked to describe his run for president as a gamble that the country was ready for change. The bet just paid off spectacularly for him.

Elijah Cummings made an Obama bet, too.

Twenty months ago, he said yes when Obama called, asking if Cummings would head his campaign in the state. And when Obama won the presidency, the congressman from West Baltimore won big, too.

Elijah E. Cummings is now the man to see if you want something from the incoming administration.

Catching his breath in his Capitol Hill office near the end of an epochal week, Cummings said he hadn't had time to sift through all the e-mails coming in.

"People want to be on the transition team, and they want jobs," he said. "They see me as a link to those opportunities."

His emergence as a Maryland go-to guy for the president-elect is politics at its most elemental: What Cummings did for Obama has made him an obvious conduit.

Over the past two years, he traveled to Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Virginia and Florida to campaign for Obama. He spent last weekend, two days before his own re-election (he won with almost 80 percent of the vote), spreading the Obama gospel at black churches in Toledo, Ohio.

Cummings said he always had a feeling this would happen.

"I go with my gut a lot. I just knew he was going to win," he said.

It would be easy, in the afterglow of Obama's victory, to play down Cummings' decision to go with him - except that, in doing so, Cummings was bucking the state's Democratic establishment, which was already in the process of lining up heavily behind the front-runner, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was a national Clinton co-chair. Gov. Martin O'Malley got out front early for her, too.

It might also seem obvious to expect an African-American congressman to support the first serious black presidential candidate. But prominent black Democrats, such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, decided initially to back Clinton, whose husband enjoyed enormous popularity among black voters. Other senior black elected officials, such as Rep. James E. Clyburn, a high-ranking member of the House leadership, chose to stay on the sidelines until the nomination was decided.

Politicians are notorious for having long memories, especially when it comes to who was for them - and against them - especially when it mattered most.

So Cummings took a chance, however risky it may have been, and now it's paying off.

He's happy to drop references to conversations with "Barack," but he doesn't pretend to be a member of the inner circle. He has never socialized with Obama, but then again, few others in Washington have, either.

He's never seen Obama at the House gym, where Cummings rides the stationary bike and lifts weights.

"It's just toning, Jack, I'm not going in there to kill myself. I'm 57, man, I'm not trying to prove anything. The younger guys, they challenge me, but I tell them, 'It's all right,' " he says, laughing.

Another workout regular, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, is there in the morning, riding the bike and reading the paper.

"You get to know people in the gym," said Cummings, who has gotten to know Emanuel, soon to be White House chief of staff. He calls Obama's top aide a "perfect" choice for the job, because of his close attention to detail and close ties to House Democrats.

Cummings said he and Obama had met casually at a conference for state legislators, but their first one-on-one meeting was during the 2004 campaign. In late September of that year, Cummings played host at a Baltimore fundraising breakfast for Obama, who was facing token opposition from Alan L. Keyes, a perennial candidate imported from Maryland at the last minute by desperate Illinois Republicans.

At the event, Cummings, then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he wanted Obama to be more than the third African-American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. He wanted him to be a "player" - in the party and around the country. O'Malley, still mayor but then praised as a rising national star, strolled into the room as Obama was conducting TV interviews and met the future president for the first time.

Less than four months later, Cummings said Obama phoned, on his way back from a Chicago Bears playoff game, and asked him to chair his campaign in the state.

"I said, 'Can you win?' " Cummings recalled. "He said, 'I will win.' "

Cummings said he accepted on the spot.

His decision to join Obama early was "a bold move, and it plays well for him," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who lives on the Eastern Shore.

Obama's victory has enhanced Cummings' status among Maryland officeholders, but if the congressman wants to use his new leverage to take his career to a higher level, he'd have to act "sooner rather than later," Trippi said.

"He's definitely one of the people that has achieved a new power base," he said.

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