At 8 a.m. on a frigid January morning, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, 49-year-old widow of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, was standing on a busy street corner in Baltimore, enthusiastically waving at passing cars next to a campaign sign with her name on it. She’d been doing this every morning and evening at rush hour — rain, snow, or shine — before and after a full day of knocking on doors and talking to voters. There were no fewer than 32 people in the special election to succeed her legendary husband in Congress, and she wasn’t taking anything for granted. “I’m not riding in on my husband’s coattails,” she says. “People have to know me, see me, hear me. I’m running hard and I’m running to win.”
The chair of Maryland’s Democratic Party until November, Cummings is a fiery and compelling public speaker and fierce civil-rights advocate. She made headlines last year for calling the state’s Republican governor Larry Hogan “a dog whistle white nationalist” when he compared himself to Ronald Reagan. One-on-one, she is soft-spoken, measured and charming, prone to random bursts of laughter at her own expense.
You wouldn’t know from watching Cummings’ campaign that she’s coming off the hardest few months of her life. Just a month after Elijah passed away in October, she underwent a preventive double mastectomy that had been made urgent by the breast-cancer diagnoses of her mother and sister. She took only three weeks to recover before immersing herself full-force into the congressional election to succeed her husband. “That month was mind-numbingly painful and surreal at the same time,” she says. “There were frustrating days. But never did I say I’m gonna toss it all in.”
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Cummings faces an uphill battle in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District. In February, former Congressman Kweisi Mfume defeated her in the Democratic primary for the special election to carry out the remainder of Elijah’s term. (She came in second, with 17 percent of the vote). Mfume benefited from strong name recognition, having held the seat before. The candidates will face off again in an April 28th primary to fill Elijah’s seat for the new term, starting in 2021. Maya is expecting a much higher voter turnout in that election, because other state and local races will also be on the ballot. She told supporters after the February vote that she and Elijah “fought together for a long time, and then, of course, he expected me to keep fighting. And get this, I am.”
If Cummings wins the election, she’ll be one of nearly 50 American women who have succeeded their late husbands in Congress — a century-old practice known as “widow’s succession.” But she does not want to just inherit her husband’s seat or be a placeholder for him in Congress.“ Yes, I am Elijah’s wife, and I am so proud of that and proud of his legacy,” she says. “I also could have run for this on my own in literally any jurisdiction in the country, just based on the credentials I have by myself.”
Cummings has been steeped in politics and racial justice issues for decades. While pursuing her doctoral degree in political science from Purdue, she worked on Capitol Hill for the Congressional Black Caucus, the House Ways and Means Committee, and then as chief of staff for former New York Congressman Charles Rangel. In 2005, she founded Global Policy Solutions, a political strategy firm dedicated to social change.
Cummings says she never considered running for office herself until Donald Trump’s election. “I was like, how is it possible that this man comes to office after being an admitted assaulter of women, after everything we knew about him — the racial discrimination, the stiffing of workers. How is it possible we had this man come into office?”
Cummings briefly ran for governor of Maryland in 2018, with the backing of the women’s fundraising group EMILY’s List, but had to pull out of the race to become her husband’s primary caretaker after he was hospitalized for heart issues. Later that year, when it seemed like Elijah’s health was stable again, she told him she was considering running for chair of the Maryland Democratic Party. “His advice to me was, ‘You better win,’” she recalls, laughing. “I ran like a bat out of hell, and I won.”
EMILY’s List is backing Cummings again in the race for Elijah’s seat. “She is a lifelong champion for social justice, human rights, and strengthening the well-being of kids, seniors, families, and workers,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of the organization.
Cummings inherited a passion for racial justice and social equality from her parents. They grew up, as she says, “on the negro side” of a small West Texas town during the Jim Crow era, the third generation from slavery. Her father served in the Air Force and moved the family around a lot, but her parents always kept a library in the house filled with books on the history of segregation. “We lived in very diverse, mixed-race, mixed-faith communities in military bases all over the country and abroad, but my parents steeped us in the history of the African American struggle in this country.”
She met Elijah when she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1997, and interviewed him while doing research for her dissertation on African American political perceptions of HIV and AIDS. He was 20 years older than her, and it took a few years of passing each other on Capitol Hill before he got up the nerve to ask her out. One day in 2000 he approached her and her sister as they sat on a bench under a bank of trees outside the Capitol. “Out of the blue and uncharacteristically, he says to my sister, ‘Your sister won’t go out with me.’ I uncharacteristically respond, ‘Well, you never asked.’”
As the relationship got serious, Elijah reached out to his friend Debbie Dingell, then married to the much older Congressman John Dingell, for advice. “We had a long discussion about marrying a younger woman, and I said, ‘If you’re in love, you’re in love. You can follow your heart,’” says Dingell, who replaced her late husband in Congress in 2015.
“We really connected on a spiritual plane,” Maya says. “He heard me when I didn’t even hear myself. The segregation that my parents experienced, he experienced here in Baltimore. We bonded on that level, and we bonded on our desire for a society that was welcoming and inclusive of all.”
Then came the most harrowing year of Maya’s life. As chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, Elijah had become one Trump’s most outspoken critics — particularly on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border — which put him directly in the president’s crosshairs. “We felt like we were in the trenches for a while, and we knew a direct hit was coming,” she says.
Trump viciously attacked the congressman — and Baltimore — on Twitter. “Cumming [sic] District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” the president tweeted after an intruder broke into the Cummings’ house. “If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
“No human being would want to live there,” Trump added, an overtly racist insult to a majority-black city.
Maya believes the stress of the incident undermined Elijah’s health, which was already declining. He started to suggest to her that when he passed away, she should run for his seat. “The thought of anybody filling his shoes is daunting,” she says. “But I feel like at least I knew what his hopes, dreams, and aspirations were for this district and for the nation.”
Elijah Cummings’ two daughters from previous relationships, Jennifer and Adia, endorsed another candidate in the race, their father’s longtime aide Harry Spikes. Maya says she was not hurt by their decision, because “this is what democracy is about. It’s so important that young people are making their voices heard, and I’m proud of Elijah’s daughters for doing just that,” she says.
Both Cummings and front-runner Mfume have to reckon with some mistakes in their past. The Baltimore Sun reported that Mfume left his position as president of the NAACP in 2004 following multiple poor performance reviews and the threat of a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, which Mfume said arose from a “boneheaded” decision to have an affair with one of his subordinates. And The Washington Post flagged some sloppy accounting issues with Cummings’ charity, Center for Global Policy Solutions, that potentially violated the rules for non-profit status. The charity’s accounting firm took responsibility for the errors in an email forwarded to the Post, and Cummings said she used her own funds to correct the problem.
Whether she wins in April or not, Maya says she intends to keep working to carry on Elijah’s legacy every day. She’s currently completing his book — part memoir, part political call-to-action — which will be out this summer. But her lifelong mission has been to “drive society toward inclusion,” and she hopes to do that as a member of Congress.
“We are at a critical moment in time — I call it our ‘zero moment,’” she says. “We can allow ourselves to sink and go back 100 years, not just in terms of race relations, but in terms of women’s rights, human rights, the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities. Trump has unleashed a Pandora’s box of hate that covers everything from immigrants to religious minorities to people of color. And I just believe our country is better than that.”