Rep. Cummings helped my dreams come true

Published 3:29 am Saturday, November 2, 2019

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This column was written by Dr. Delarious O. Stewart.

As a young journalism student at Southern University, I would watch Dee Dee Myers and wish for the opportunity to serve in that role. Ms. Myers served as Press Secretary during President Clinton’s first two years in office. I watched in awe as she commanded the attention of the White House Press Core. I also admired how she handled the hard questions and never broke a sweat. I studied her every move and began dreaming of following in her footsteps.

Little did I know, I would one day get a call that placed me in a very similar role. That call was from a newly elected Member of Congress, Elijah Cummings.

When I flew to DC to meet with him for the first time, I sat in utter amazement. I thought hard about my great-grandmother, who fried chicken everyday so that I could go to college. I thought about my single mother who worked tirelessly to make sure I had what I needed, while she went without.

My heart was heavy, yet full. This new Member of Congress sat across from me and asked what I was thinking about. He asked me, what fed my soul, why I was interested in public service, how I thought I could contribute to creating a livable community for others and what motivated me.

After sharing my story, Congressman Cummings looked at me and said it would be his honor to have me join his team as Press Secretary and Director of Communications.

I was in utter disbelief. Congressman Cummings had just given me the opportunity of a lifetime. I couldn’t help wondering if that interview taught me more about myself than about him. He made that kind of personal connection with everyone he met, from the people of his district, to witnesses who testified at hearings, to whistleblowers who reported waste, fraud, or abuse.

From that day until his death, I would witness his courageous leadership, unmatched integrity, and commitment to justice and service.

In public, and even more so in private, he was inspiring. Whether in a hearing room full of Members of Congress, or in a quiet one on one conversation, his example motivated me to become my best self in service to others.

With a goal of moral clarity in all that he did, his purpose was always pure. He taught me that my lot should always be to “give a voice to the voiceless,” including families whose drinking water had been poisoned; the little old lady who did not receive her social security check; or the elderly man who had to choose between paying for food or his medicine. But most of all, he inspired me to fight for vulnerable children and “generations yet unborn.”

Early during my tenure, he told me that he did not want people on his staff who would “simply go along to get along.” He wanted staff who would challenge his thinking, yet, follow his vision. In exchange, he listened to me, respected me, and trusted me. He made sure that I knew he was proud of the work I was doing. Because of that, I was committed to doing everything in my power to fulfill his vison.

After joining his staff, I quickly learned that he was demanding. He would call me in the middle of the night and expect me to answer. He would call me as I was headed to work to talk about a news story that he had already read or seen on television. I would overhear him talking to other Members, boasting that he had the hardest working staff on the Hill.

During one conversation, he shared with me that he was in the “3rd group” while in school. Simply put, he was in special education. He also shared that it was part of my job to help him in his quest to create laws that leveled the playing field. He said that he was tired of Black boys overpopulating special education, but not getting a seat at the table in gifted programs. He believed that our best course would be to strengthen funding to Head Start so that every child could have an opportunity at early education.

What I did not know at the time was that my lot was not to serve as a political communications professional. I later realized that my reason for being in Congressman Cummings’ life for the season was to show me that my real advocacy was in schools working in special education and fighting for equal education opportunities for all students.

It was with him that I learned the “least among us” needed me. Congressman Cummings instilled in me that I had the privilege of advocating for children with disabilities. This privilege would afford me the opportunity to draw attention to unjust and unfair policies that caused children to slip through the cracks, fail to be recognized or not be given access to the supports and services needed to reach their full potential.

Congressman Cummings also taught me to thunder against injustice and on behalf of those who could not fight for themselves. Over the last years, I watched from afar as he vowed to keep battling until his “dying breath.”

Guided by his faith and values, I watched as Congressman Cummings would look for, and bring out, the good in others, forming bridges through human connection.

He could be described as a unifying force, even at a time of partisanship. I have sat and watched him command order with a sharp rap of his gavel, elevate debate by noting that “we are better than that,” and urge all of us to seek “not just common ground, but higher ground.”

Words cannot describe the emptiness I now feel. I will forever remember his strong spirit and boundless energy. This void is devastating, but there is hope.

As was shared at his funeral, we must continue with passion and purpose. We must take our pain, turn it into our passion, and then make it our purpose.

He would often reach out to simply say, “I just called to thank you for all that you do.” Today, I steal those words from him. Thank you, Mr. Cummings, for the impact that you made on my life. Thank you for inspiring me to make the world a better place than I found it. Thank you for giving voice to the voiceless and defending our democracy.

But most of all, thank you for making a little boy’s dream come true. Rest on, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings.

A native of Franklinton, Dr. Delarious O. Stewart served as Press Secretary to Congressman Elijah E. Cummings. He also served as Press Secretary to the Congressional Black Caucus, when Congressman Cummings served as 1st Vice Chair. He is now a licensed school psychologist and works as a Director of Special Education.