A fellow Baltimorean who has been a tireless and effective advocate for housing policy reform is calling it quits for lack of funding. Driven by her own sense of justice, she has helped countless elderly folks avoid eviction and called attention to the disgusting inequities in Baltimore housing. A wise man said recently that people have long known how to profit off exploiting poor people. He said, when we can figure out how to profit off helping the poor, well, then. Look out.
It disgusts me that these things always come down to money. But this is not a post about the sacred energy of money or the power of intention or of positive thinking or the secrets of manifesting wealth. This is a rant about politics, a topic I normally avoid. I saw Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings speak last night. He considers himself an ordinary man who has had extraordinary experiences by the grace of God and his own hard work. Pity that he is the exception rather than the rule.
I have voted in every election since I was eligible. Always I leave the voting booth with a sense of pride and delight to have participated in the democratic process. And yet, I never gave politics much thought as a young person. In High School and College, those kids tended to be insufferably pompous and full of themselves.
The geeks, the art and drama kids, and the freaks (now “Goths”) were more or less invisible, on the margins, in our own worlds. The jocks and political kids were indulged and encouraged by teachers. They were happily visible and considered better than the rest of us. Praised for their leadership and held up as examples.
I didn’t buy it. There was something darkly Darwinian about them. The “Most Likely to Succeeds” grew up and became involved in their party leadership, ran for City Council and State Legislature, then Congress and the Senate. These are the people who run our country now.
If everyone suspects (or knows) that the system is broken, why then do we continue to give these people so much of our attention? We know that what we focus on expands and increases. The Petri dish of High School becomes the dysfunctional institutions we follow on the news, the weekend talk shows, the blogs and podcasts.
And yet we don’t believe in it anymore.
We’re stuck because it doesn’t work to tune out and choose to live a decent life of family and self-care and meaningful work. Then you lose your right to wade into the fray and argue a position. It takes a staggering amount of time to be well informed enough to argue and discuss the topics of the day. It takes a concerted effort to seek out a balance of trusted sources, so you can be well prepared. Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings said last night that for every minute of TV talk show he’s going to be on, he spends one hour preparing. He can’t bear the thought of being caught out unprepared by a question.
Congressman Cummings is a wonderful reminder of what is possible when we elect people of integrity and authenticity to represent us and to govern. I feel this way about all of Maryland’s delegation, which makes sense since I know their work. I am willing to concede that I may have painted our political system with too broad a brush. There probably are others like them out there, working hard on our behalf.
Rep. Cummings spoke at the opening event of the renowned Speech and Debate team at his alma mater, Baltimore City College High School, where my son is a freshman. A 1969 graduate, he rode three buses every day from a working class neighborhood to go to this school. (My son complains about having to ride in a car pool that takes 20 minutes.)
Rep. Cummings never missed a day of school in his life, because both of his sharecropper parents were forced to leave school after the 4th grade. They had the audacity at 18 to relocate from South Carolina to Baltimore, so their as-yet-unborn children could have more opportunity. On their $7.00 a day salary as a laborer and a domestic worker, they raised seven children through college graduation.
At Rep. Cummings’ swearing-in twenty years go, his father sat in the balcony of Congress, weeping. Later, when his son asked him about it, he said he was thinking about how this was the very hall in which it was decided that “we were 3/5 of a human being.” The same place that “called us chattel.”
But that’s not why he wept.
He marveled in pride at his son’s many accomplishments—a 16-year law practice, and now election to Congress. But that’s not why, either.
He wept because he looked at his own hands and his son’s hands and knew that his blood ran in both. He saw what his son was making of his life. And he wondered what he could have become had he not been forced to abandon his education. At this point in the story, Rep. Cummings’ voice grew very loud. He boomed out into the room this denial, and the fact that his great-grandfather was sold into slavery for $400. And the pain that his father felt that fueled his passion and his purpose: to educate every one of his children to be full citizens of this country that had treated him and his ancestors so roughly.
In this season of political campaigning, it’s easy to get distracted by the spectacle of it and to forget that it is merely a means to an end. For every bombastic, corrupt, and divisive so-called leader on the campaign trail, there are hundreds of people like my broke friend working without pay on behalf of their neighbors who are suffering. Just because politicians are more visible doesn’t make them better than the rest of us.
I could say that Rep. Cummings, with his passion, dedication, fierce intelligence, and commitment to excellence and service, is a rare exception. He is. The Maryland delegation is full of exceptions. Our representatives fight hard for us and seem to be much less beholden to special interests than others. One of them—Congressman John Sarbanes—crusades to reform campaign finance and funds the bulk of his campaigns with small contributions from constituents.
Rep. Cummings had so many wise things to say last night, but two in particular stood out. He invoked Nelson Mandela’s advice that when you really want to lash out in anger, the greatest thing you can do is hold yourself back. Rep. Cummings said he listens to an hour of spiritual music before every Congressional hearing, to prepare by uplifting himself.
The second thing he said is that he writes at least half a page every day about what he is feeling, because you must know yourself and what you care about, in order to know what you stand for. This authenticity allows him to see the other side of every argument. And to be genuinely humbled by his experiences and career.
Even a quick peruse of YouTube clips shows the harsh working conditions that Elijah Cummings has to deal with on a daily basis. Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy from South Carolina is particularly contemptuous and disrespectful. This clip shows Rep. Cummings’ meticulous preparation and ability to hone in and summarize key points. It reveals a very different reality about the so-called classified emails than reflected in popular opinion.