Dear President Donald Trump, let me tell you about my ex-boss Elijah Cummings
Jimmy Fremgen,USA TODAY Opinion Thu, Aug 1 6:03 AM EDT
Just over six years ago I was sitting in the gymnasium at Woodlawn High School in Gwynn Oak, Maryland, and I was very unhappy. You see, it was a weekend and as I’m sure you’d agree, I would have much preferred to spend the day playing golf. Instead, my boss had ordered his entire staff, myself included, to drive to this town outside Baltimore on a muggy 93-degree day to help run an event to prevent home foreclosures.
I know you’re wondering whom I worked for, Mr. President. It was Rep. Elijah Cummings. And it is safe to say that on this day, we would have had something in common: I really didn’t like him much.
I worked for Mr. Cummings both on his Capitol staff and for the House Oversight and Reform Committee from August 2012 to February 2016. When he called me to offer the job, he was hard on me immediately. He told me that my salary was non-negotiable, that if I did something wrong he would be sure to tell me, and that he expected me to meet the high standard he keeps for himself and his staff.
Same man at podium, in grocery store
What I quickly learned about him is that he is the same person on camera and off. The passionate soliloquies that he delivers from behind the chairman’s podium in the Oversight hearing room are very similar to the ones that I often heard from the other end of the phone after he ran into one of his neighbors in the aisle of the grocery store back home. If someone came to him for help, he wouldn’t let any of his staff tell him it wasn’t possible. He’d push us for a solution and give his cellphone number to anyone who needed it — even when we wished he wouldn’t.
In March 2014, then-Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa cut off Mr. Cummings' microphone during his closing remarks, a massive break in decorum that left Cummings reading his statement aloud as the TV feed abruptly stopped. The incident hit cable news in seconds, and I remember coming back from a meeting to find every single person in the office answering phone calls.
I joined them on the phones, enduring nonstop racist epithets, cursing, threats and language that I had never imagined. I remember one vividly, a call from a Colorado area code on which an older female voice told me that Cummings better “sit down and shut up like the good boy someone should have taught him to be.” The phones rang this way for three days.
At home in Baltimore every night
Sir, I won’t defend Baltimore, I’m not from there, and there are many who have already stood up to do so. Instead, let me correct you on one last thing: Unlike almost every other member of Congress, Congressman Cummings goes home every night. Honestly, when I worked for him, sometimes I wished he wouldn’t. There were times when I would want him to attend an early morning meeting, take a phone call or approve a document and he couldn’t, because he’d be driving the 44 miles from his house in Baltimore to the Capitol.
During the protests after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, I couldn’t get hold of Mr. Cummings. Gov. Larry Hogan had called in the National Guard, and I was trying to relay an update about the soldiers that would soon be standing in the streets. It turned out that the congressman was in the streets himself, marching arm-in-arm with community leaders, pastors, gang members, neighbors, anyone who was willing to peacefully protect his city. He walked back and forth, bullhorn in hand urging people to be peaceful, to respect one another, to love each other and to get home safely.
Mr. President, I know you are frustrated. I, too, have been dressed down for my own mistakes by Congressman Cummings. I know how rigorous he can be in his oversight. I agree it can be extensive, but it certainly does not make him a racist.
Instead, let me offer this: I met you once in Statuary Hall of the Capitol, amid the sculptures of prominent Americans, and gave you my card. If you still have it, give me ring. I’d be happy to pass along Congressman Cummings’ cellphone number so the two of you can have a conversation. Or better yet, swing through the aisles of one of the grocery stores in West Baltimore. I’m sure anyone there would be willing to give you his number.
Jimmy Fremgen is a Sacramento-based consultant specializing in cannabis policy. He handled higher education, firearms safety, defense and foreign affairs as senior policy adviser to Rep. Elijah Cummings from 2012 to 2016.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump should call my ex-boss Rep. Cummings to discuss Baltimore