“When I saw Mitch McConnell, all I saw was my brother’s face,” Rankin told The Washington Post

By Benjamin VanHoose
October 28, 2019 02:26 PM
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Bobby Rankin, the man who went viral for not shaking hands with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at Rep. Elijah Cummings‘ funeral last week, spoke out to The Washington Post about the personal reason why he felt he “couldn’t do it.”

During a memorial service for the late Baltimore lawmaker at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, McConnell, 77, appeared caught off guard when Rankin, a pallbearer at the ceremony, skipped over him while shaking hands with leading legislators. Footage of the awkward moment went viral, with many online pointing out McConnell’s seemingly surprised reaction.

A resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, Rankin, 64, told the Post in a story published Monday that he chose to single out McConnell because of what he said was the Kentucky lawmaker’s impact on his own late brother’s life.

“When I saw Mitch McConnell, all I saw was my brother’s face,” Rankin told the paper.

A year ago, Rankin’s brother, Jerry, died from cancer, according to the Post. Jerry was exposed to contaminated water while in the Marines, the Post reported, and Rankin said that Jerry didn’t get his veterans’ benefits in the final months of his life.

Rankin said Cummings — a longtime friend — made an effort to resolve the matter at the time, but that McConnell blocked it. He did not elaborate, according to the Post, which reported: “Rankin wasn’t clear about exactly why his brother didn’t receive VA benefits or McConnell’s precise role in Jerry’s battle to get them after his cancer returned in 2016.”

McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (in red tie) at the Thursday memorial service for Rep. Elijah Cummings
| Credit: Melina Mara-Pool/Getty

“Elijah Cummings reached across party lines trying to help my brother get his military benefits, and Mitch McConnell was one of the persons he reached out to,” Rankin told the Post.

In viral video of the handshake moment, Rankin didn’t hesitate when passing by the Kentucky Republican after shaking hands with Rep. Jim Clyburn, Rep. Steny Hoyer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

He also acknowledged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was standing to McConnell’s right.

“I could not put my hands in the man’s hand who refused to help somebody who served his country … I couldn’t do it, because I was thinking about my brother,” Rankin told the Post.

At the service last Thursday, McConnell went on to eulogize Cummings.

“He knew there was only one reason why a son of sharecroppers, a child who had literally had to bear the injuries of bigotry and segregation, could graduate from law school and eventually chair a powerful committee in Congress,” McConnell said in his speech. “Only one reason: because principled leaders had fought to give kids like him a chance.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell at Rep. Elijah Cummings’ memorial service on Thursday
| Credit: Al Drago-Pool/Getty

McConnell continued: “Chairman Cummings made it his life’s work to continue that effort. He climbed the ranks here in the Capitol, not because he outgrew his hometown but because he was so committed to it.”

Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, died on Oct. 17 at 68. Former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton attended a separate service in Baltimore on Friday.

Reflecting on Cummings’ legacy, Rankin told the Post: “When I carry him to his grave, if I could say something to him, I would say something I said to him many, many times before: What a mighty, mighty man he is.”