Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland was different from most other lawmakers we see today. He embodied a moral authority that others try to project but that for him was unquestionably authentic. When he spoke of working on behalf of "the people," there was never a shred of a doubt that he meant just that.
Rep. Cummings is a vivid reminder that our democratic institutions work best when they are open to genuinely diverse perspectives. His personal experiences with adversity and injustice helped forge the views he brought to his work as representative of Maryland’s 7th District, which includes some of the most economically distressed areas in the country. These lived experiences no doubt led him to view his constitutional duty to "promote the general Welfare" differently from many of his colleagues and to take that duty much more seriously.
Rep. Cummings brought this unique perspective to his work on U.S. regulatory policy. For many, this area of policy is arcane and technical. But he recognized the value of effective regulatory safeguards as a tool for achieving fairness and justice for all. Rep. Cummings richly deserves the many accolades he is now receiving. One important one that is likely to be overlooked, though, is that he was a vocal and constant champion of our regulatory system, courageously defending it against self-serving attacks from powerful industries and small government ideologues, even at times when few other lawmakers were willing to take the political risk of doing so.
Conservatives are now fond of using the term "social justice warrior" as a derisory epithet against those who would deign to try to make the lives of the most marginalized members of American society just a little better. Rep. Cummings was a social justice warrior. Good luck trying to use that term derisively against him. I can think of no better tribute to his work and legacy than to adopt that term as a badge of honor and as a call to action to rebuild a more just and equitable America.
Top image by flickr user AFGE, used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.