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'He Brought Calmness To Our Work:' Debbie Mucarsel-Powell On The Legacy of Rep. Elijah Cummings

Maryland U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings during a hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, of which he was the chairman, on July 26.

A public viewing and funeral service is scheduled Thursday for Re. Elijah Cummings. The Democratic congressman from Baltimore passed away last week from health complications at the age of 68. A longtime civil rights advocate, Cummings was an important progressive leader in the House and championed proposals that addressed income inequality, police relations with communities of color and disparities in healthcare treatment for minorities. 

Miami Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell worked directly alongside Cummings as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Mucarsel-Powell said he was an essential voice in holding government accountable and made transparency a priority as chairman of the House Oversight Committee. We spoke with Mucarsel-Powell about Cummings' legacy in Congress and the next steps for the impeachment inquiry in Congress.  

WLRN: Help us understand Rep. Cummings’ importance in Congress as a leading House Democrat. 

Rep. Mucarsel-Powell: One of the things that [Rep. Cummings] did so well is that he brought calmness to the work that we've been doing here in this 116th Congress. There have been many feelings, whether from the Republicans or the Democrats, about all the investigations. But he always brought calmness to those discussions and respect, dignity and judiciousness to the work of protecting the Constitution and protecting our democracy. We as new members really went to him when we needed advice on an issue. And so we're not only losing a great leader here in Congress, we are losing a leader in the Democratic values that we've all been fighting for so long.  

He truly represented everything that you look for in a leader, someone that's going to speak truth to power and someone that will fight for equal rights for every American. We heard comments on the House floor from the minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who said that even when they [Republicans] didn't agree with him, they had great respect for the chairman. And they knew that many times when they would engage in a debate with him, that they may end up losing the debate, but that he was always a true friend to everyone. And it didn't matter what party affiliation you had, he was respected and he will be greatly missed. 

As you said, he was someone that you can go to when you needed advice. Can you remember that one moment that you went to him and that he was able to help you with something?  

That's a great question. I'm a new member that is sitting in the Judiciary Committee, and we, as you very well know, have been going through months of investigating the administration and the White House. And I did talk to him at one point about the timing of everything and when he thought it would be a good time for actually, for me personally, to say that I thought it was a good idea to support him in an impeachment inquiry. And, you know, for him, it was all about transparency, truth and really looking inside of yourself and knowing what you believe and what you stand for and also being very mindful of why we're all here in this body of government. And so I did have a brief conversation with him on the [House] floor about that issue. And he actually made me think a little bit more about never jumping into any decisions or jumping to any conclusions. He said everything that we do should be done judiciously. We should take our time and analyze all sides and to be respectful of those that may not necessarily agree with what you think is true.  

Rep. Cummings also played an important role in the ongoing impeachment inquiry in Congress. I want to ask you about the recent story of the two South Florida businessmen who've been indicted on campaign finance violations. It's since been uncovered by The Palm Beach Post that they contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and federal Republican candidates across the country, including the Trump reelection campaign. How significant do you see the arrest in building a case for impeachment? 

Well, look, there are very clear laws on campaign financing, and I learned that very quickly when I was running for office back in 2017. And this is just more clear evidence that there has been wrongdoing and that we have seen contributions that are not lawful that were sent to the Trump campaign. I think that we need to continue to investigate and make sure that we bring out all the evidence. The American public needs to understand how strict these rules are when it comes to campaign contributions.  

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.