Before Rep. Elijah Cummings made national headlines as a congressman challenging President Donald Trump and tackling world issues, the Baltimore native made waves as an attorney who advocated for more opportunities for black and other minority lawyers in Maryland.
Following his death early Thursday morning, lawyers who worked with Cummings agreed he always seemed more inclined to pursue politics than his legal career.
Still, in the 20 years he practiced as an attorney – including 14 years of service in the Maryland House of Delegates – Cummings fought on behalf of fellow attorneys of color, pushing for policy changes that could open up greater opportunities for them, according to longtime legal partner Eddie Smith Jr.
“He saw that we as black lawyers were unequal, and he helped equalize it,” said Smith, who partnered to run the firm Cummings and Smith PA from 1979 to 1996 with a team of 10 lawyers. “What he did was direct attention to the need for equal treatment for people in the courthouse and access to jobs in the courts.”
Aside from Cummings’ position in the House of Delegates, he also served a couple years in the 1970s as president of the Monumental City Bar Association, which advocates for black attorneys in Baltimore.
In that role and later as a state politician, Cummings helped open up more opportunities for both black lawyers and judges in Maryland, Smith said.
“Elijah was instrumental in helping get more black judges on the bench,” said Smith. “When we broke in as attorneys, there were just two black judges on the circuit court.”
Smith said Cummings developed a friendship with former Gov. Martin O’Malley while serving in the House of Delegates, which he believes helped Cummings successfully advocate for certain changes.
Law school days
Cummings graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1976. One classmate who Cummings became friends with is Baltimore Judge Lewyn Garrett, who added that there weren’t yet many black students or black lawyers in those days.
There also weren’t many legal clinics or internships at the time, which Garrett said meant the senior black students would often help out freshmen who needed help.
“Our clinic was going to older black students who taught us,” said Garrett, who was a freshman at the law school when Cummings was a senior.
He added that Cummings instilled those same values of older black lawyers helping out first-year students who needed help.
After law school, while working out of the Cummings and Smith PA offices on Saint Paul Street, Cummings served as the managing partner who helped grow the firm and handled contract cases, while Smith served as the primary trial lawyer, often representing drug dealers, Smith said.
Garrett added that Cummings had a reputation for not wanting to charge individual clients.
“He had a passion to help people. He did want to make money as a lawyer, but Eddie (Smith) would sometimes remind Elijah, ‘You have to charge people! You have to also make a living!’” said Garrett.
Eventually, Smith said, he knew his law partner would focus solely on politics and that legal representation was too narrow a focus for him.
“He believed in service to a broader perspective of citizens,” said Smith. “When you’re a lawyer for everyday people, it’s minimalist, but when you deal with people on a grander scale, you deal with everything: citizens, health care, transportation and more.”
Even though being in the House of Delegates made Cummings’ job at the firm more part time, Smith said his partner was still often there in the city to meet with constituents. But eventually, Smith and others guessed Cummings would go into politics full time.
“That’s where his talents were best directed, especially with children,” said Smith. “He used to go to every single school, and talk to children about how they could succeed.”
William “Billy” Murphy, a prominent Baltimore lawyer who knew Cummings, said the two would help each other get state legislation passed. He said the congressman started doing less and less legal work leading up to when he joined Congress in 1996.
Murphy said Cummings should be remembered as “one of the most powerful voices politically to ever emerge on the national scene from the state of Maryland.”
Murphy emphasized that Cummings’ work “transcended race” as he grew as a congressman and that Cummings should be remembered not just for his work on civil rights but for his service to people worldwide.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole him as a black politician, because he was so much bigger than that,” said Murphy, who praised Cummings’ knowledge of foreign policy and the economy.
Dean Ronald Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law called Cummings a “champion for the Constitution, for the rule of law and for Baltimore.”
“As Baltimore’s congressman, he worked to strengthen our city and defended it against unfair attacks. Our law school has lost a great ally and friend,” said Weich in a statement.
He’ll be ‘sorely missed’
During the Baltimore Development Corp. board meeting Thursday morning, Cummings was remembered as an unparalleled advocate for the city by the current and previous leaders of the city’s quasi-public economic development agency.
Bill Cole, the former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., was on hand after what he called “rough morning” to review the with board members the deal he cut with Stronach Group. Cole worked for Cummings as a special assistant from 1996 to 2003.
The agreement, which Cole negotiated on behalf of the city, involves redeveloping Pimlico Race Course, and keeping the Preakness Stakes in town. Cole credited Cummings as inspiration in the work ahead to gain state backing for the agreement he said will lure millions in new investment and create thousands of jobs for the Park Heights community, which Cummings represented in Congress.
“Frankly, a lot of my motivation here is about him,” Cole said.
Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp. started his report to his organization’s board members on Thursday by remembering Cummings.
Tarbert worked on city issues with the late congressman when the now-BDC chief worked at City Hall for former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and then for former Mayor Catherine Pugh.
“He was just a tremendous leader and advocate for Baltimore City. I know he will be sorely missed,” Tarbert said.
Business reporter Adam Bednar contributed to this story.
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