The strong-willed Baltimore politician had a soft and romantic side

By Virginia Chamlee
September 22, 2020 11:42 AM
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Maya Michelle Rockeymoore Cummings (left), Elijah Cummings
Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty

He was known as a formidable figure in the struggle for civil rights. But Rep. Elijah Cummings also had a reputation for being kind and compassionate — the sort of politician who would listen earnestly to a constituent and fight hard to enact change.

"He was a beautiful man," says Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, the congressman's widow and a political force in her own right, having served as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and founded a Washington consulting firm, Global Policy Solutions.

Rockeymoore Cummings stood by the representative's side for more than a decade, watching as the democrat engaged in the rough and tumble world of politics while managing a private struggle with cancer, with which he was diagnosed some 25 years before his death in 2019. She also played an instrumental role in getting his new book, We're Better Than This, published nearly a year later.

"The question became: 'Should we move forward?' " Rockeymoore Cummings tells PEOPLE from the Baltimore row home she shared with her late husband. "[When he died], the book was already 90 percent complete, and I could hear his voice — 'Finish what you start, finish what you start.' "

After much deliberation, she worked with a publisher to get the book to press, writing its final chapter — in which she reflects on their relationship and Cummings' last hours.

We're Better Than This, out Tuesday, details the congressman's long fight for justice and the political goals his survivors still hope to accomplish. But more than that, it paints a vivid portrait of a man who was no-nonsense but still romantic — or, as his wife describes him, "efficient and effective."

The couple first crossed paths in 1997, when Rockeymoore Cummings was a Congressional Black Caucus fellow collecting research for her dissertation. Cummings was one of the first congressmen she interviewed as part of her research. While their relationship began professionally, it eventually grew to beyond that.

Though she agreed to a date following a chance meeting outside the Capitol that year, it would still be some time before the two settled into a serious relationship – in part, as Rockeymoore Cummings writes in the book, because Elijah was "already in a relatively committed relationship ... or maybe two."

By 2005, their friendship had developed into a much stronger courtship and, in 2008, the two decided to marry in what Rockeymoore Cummings calls a "very Elijah-like" way.

Rockeymoore Cummings — then a public policy consultant — was heading out of town for a few hours to give a speech on public health. While driving her to the airport, Elijah casually asked, “When you get back from Atlanta, do you want to get married this afternoon?”

"By the time I arrived back at the airport, he picked me up and everything was in place at the house," Rockeymoore Cummings recounts in the book. "My 'wedding dress' was a pantsuit — eggshell blue — what I had worn to speak in Atlanta that day. We were married in the living room ... we had seven witnesses or guests. That was it. That was Elijah being romantic. Honest, simple, straightforward, planned in morning, done by evening. In his own way, so sweet."

Doctors gave him 6 months to live after 1994 cancer diagnosis

Cummings' calm, respectful demeanor masked an inner struggle brought on by his cancer diagnosis in 1994. At the time, doctors gave him six months to live, though he successfully managed the disease until it came back, "[haunting] him like a ghost," Rockeymoore Cummings remembers in the book.

In 2017, Cummings underwent emergency surgery to repair a valve in his heart. While successful, the procedure led to numerous other hurdles, including a debilitating gout diagnosis, which robbed him of the ability to walk without assistance from a walker or scooter.

Still, he soldiered on and by early 2019 had been sworn in as chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, launching a short but memorable tenure that involved his overseeing a range of investigations into the Trump administration. His battles with Trump would define his final months in Congress, with the president attacking the congressman by calling his district a “very dangerous & filthy place" in a tweet.

RELATED VIDEO: Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings Dies at 68

In response, Cummings tweeted: “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors. It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”

By the fall, Cummings' health has deteriorated. In his final months, he was weakened but still resilient, requesting a hospital pass in order to make one final public appearance in front of a sold-out National Press Club crowd. He used the moment to demand that Trump give him and his city "decency and respect.”

Then, in October 2019, the dialysis began to fail. In an effort to lift his spirits, doctors recommended sunshine therapy, which saw a team of four (including his wife) taking Cummings to the roof of Johns Hopkins, where he looked down at his city from his medical bed, perched atop the hospital helipad.

"It had been raining, but that day in particular was a glorious day," Rockeymoore Cummings tells PEOPLE. "Beautiful and bright and sunny. ... [From his vantage point] on the helipad, we were able to see the entirety of Baltimore City. Elijah looked out at the neighborhood where he spent the early part of his life, and he looked on downtown, and he looked over the westside, where our home was and where his mother had lived — and he basically proclaimed that he saw in life in retrospect, and he had come a long way."

Days later, Cummings took a turn for the worse, requesting a move to hospice where, just six hours later, he died.

In a letter left for Rockeymoore Cummings, he detailed his final wishes, including the suit in which he wanted to be buried and who he requested to speak at his funeral.

"I followed it to the letter," she writes. "But his family and I wanted him to receive the respect he deserved since he had been so disrespected by Trump in the months leading up to his death. So we worked with Speaker Pelosi’s office and staff at the U.S. Capitol to arrange for him to lie in state."

On October 24, 2019, Cummings was the first African-American member of Congress to receive that tribute, with Rockeymoore Cummings standing beside his casket as a host of prominent Republicans and Democrats praised him.

His widow ran for Cummings' seat

Following his services, Rockeymoore Cummings says she found herself faced with a tough decision: how to further his political legacy. In November 2019, she officially announced that she would run for the seat her late husband had vacated, a move that he had urged her to make before his death.

While it's not at all unusual for the wives of politicians to replace their husbands in Congress, Rockeymoore Cummings has long had her own political ambitions. In 2017, she launched a Maryland gubernatorial campaign, before abandoning it to become a full-time caretaker for her husband. In 2018, she successfully campaigned for Maryland Democratic Party chair, a role she also left due to Elijah's growing health problems and amid allegations that the party mismanaged party finances under her leadership.

Her bid to take over her husband's seat was ultimately unsuccessful. Cummings' own children backed another candidate and Rockeymoore Cummings eventually finished second to Kweisi Mfume in a February Democratic primary.

Still, her bid for Congress was helpful in keeping her busy in the wake of her husband's death — a much-needed distraction for someone dealing with grief and the isolation brought on by an ongoing pandemic. "Its been difficult," Rockeymoore Cummings admits, when reflecting on the past year. "I should admit that the first few months were about busywork — focusing on the logistics of campaigning and that kind of thing."

Now, with the campaign over, she finds herself surrounded by memories of her husband while editing, reading, and re-reading his words in an effort to preserve his legacy.

Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings

"I’m in the house that Elijah bought more than 35 years ago, and I keep being visited in the backyard by these cardinals," Rockeymoore Cummings says. "They say that cardinals represent visitors from the spirit world, so I take heart in that."

As Rockeymoore Cummings reflects on Elijah's life and legacy, socially-distancing in Baltimore with Andy, the labradoodle the couple adopted together several years ago, she wants to do more than save his memories — she wants to share them.

"I still love Elijah with all my heart," Rockeymoore Cummings says, with a catch in her voice. "I miss not being able to talk to him. He was my best friend, in addition to being my spouse and my chief advisor. He is just a huge hole that will never be plugged. "

While not all of her own political ambitions have been realized, Rockeymoore Cummings is still working to further her husband's legacy, particularly with the publication of We're Better Than This and with her own book, which is set to be released in 2021 and will focus largely on structural racism.

Elijah's legacy, says Rockeymoore Cummings — echoing many of her late husband's favorite speaking points — is "about stepping up and making sure that we select the right people, because our institutions are only as good as those running them. This is about the future of our democracy."