Meet the Democrat at center of party platform tug of war

Meet the Democrat at center of party platform tug of war
© Greg Nash

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) is no stranger to controversy and confrontation.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Benghazi Committee, he’s been on the front lines of a partisan fight that’s had deep implications for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSaagar Enjeti: Tuesday's Democratic debate already 'rigged' against Gabbard, Sanders Ilhan Omar raises .1 million in third quarter Bloomberg rethinking running for president: report MORE’s presidential bid. 

And when riots broke out in Baltimore last year, Cummings was a public face of calm that only raised his national profile as an effective peacemaker and a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform.

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Now, Cummings is facing a new challenge that will require him to draw on those experiences: He’s the chairman in charge of drafting his party’s national campaign platform.

It’s a debate that will test the diplomatic skills of Democratic leaders seeking to unite the party ahead of November’s general election against Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE

Cummings will preside over a panel that includes devout supporters of both Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, and rival Bernie SandersBernie SandersSupport drops for Medicare for All but increases for public option Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill On The Money: Trump touts China trade deal | Wall Street, Washington see signs for caution | Trump threatens sanctions on Turkey | Sanders proposes sharp hike to corporate taxes MORE, whose legions of backers are pushing him to keep his campaign alive at least as far as the Democratic National Convention in July.

How Cummings handles a committee that includes mavericks such as activist Cornel West — a Sanders supporter who has ripped both Clinton and President Obama in personal terms — will go a long way in deciding whether the party can unify around Clinton.

“What we hope, and what we all want, is a unified party that goes forward,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a staunch Sanders supporter, told the platform-drafting panel Wednesday during its first forum in Washington. “And the responsibility for that template rests here.”

Clinton on Tuesday solidified her grip on the nomination following a series of primary wins, most notably in California. But the long and hard-fought contest with Sanders — and the Vermont senator’s resounding success on the campaign trail — has forced Democratic leaders into a delicate dance of shifting the resources to Clinton, and the attacks to Trump, without scaring Sanders supporters away from the polls in November. 

Cummings seems well aware that he’s walking a tightrope.

“We’ve already been as open as possible and transparent as possible, [and] we are going to show tremendous respect for everyone,” Cummings said as he walked into the Omni Shoreham Hotel for Wednesday’s forum. 

“Part of my agenda is making sure that we do unify.”

Many Democrats say Cummings is up to the task.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D.), the minority whip, characterized his Maryland colleague as “a unifying force.”

“Elijah Cummings, as all of us have seen, [is] a uniter, a person who brings, I think, passionate commitment to values, but also a person who brings a pragmatic view,” Hoyer said Tuesday. 

Still, Cummings will have his work cut out for him.

Sanders has charged for months that the Democratic National Committee (DNC), led by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), has rigged the primary contest in Clinton’s favor. And some of his supporters have threatened not to vote at all if Clinton wins the nomination.

Sanders backers also tend to distrust Clinton, saying her long experience in Washington — something supporters rank among her strongest assets — makes her a career insider beholden to special interests. And while Clinton and Sanders tend to agree on most major policies, the two issues on which Sanders has hit Clinton hardest — her ties to Wall Street and her support of past wars — were both on display at Wednesday’s forum. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was West, who has attacked Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs” and “head of the American killing machine,” who brought them up repeatedly.

Clinton supporters, in turn, have gone after Sanders for continuing what they consider a futile campaign in the face of daunting odds. Increasingly, they’re urging him to drop out of the race so the party can mend internal wounds and focus its attacks on  Republicans. 

“Whether he decides to suspend his campaign or not, what’s most important is that his tone change and that he focuses on the general,” Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassDemocrats zero in on Ukraine call as impeachment support grows CBC marks 400th anniversary of slaves' arrival in US Senate could protect girls from sexual exploitation — but will it? MORE (D-Calif.), a Clinton supporter, told MSNBC on Tuesday. 

But Cummings has plenty of practice when it comes to managing political fights.

Indeed, Democratic leaders championed Cummings’s rise on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2011. The younger, more aggressive Cummings hopped a more senior colleague to take the spot opposite then-Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in anticipation of the fierce partisan battles the panel would take up.

“My job as chair isn’t about finding common ground; it’s about finding higher ground,” Cummings told The Hill of his new role on the platform panel. “Returning the focus — and consequently, the power — of this critical work back to the American people where it belongs illustrates my foundational belief that we’re better than this, as Democrats and a nation, and this platform will be our opportunity to show that.”

Democratic leaders are quick to note that despite similar animosity and division in 2008 between Clinton and Obama supporters following their tough primary, the sides came together to put Obama in the White House. And there’s early evidence that Sanders supporters are ready to switch allegiances — if only for the sake of keeping Trump out of the Oval Office.

“Clinton is scary in ways, I agree, but compared to Trump? Not even same ballpark,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor and fervent Sanders supporter, tweeted Wednesday.

Grijalva, for his part, declined to say how long Sanders should remain in the race. 

“I don’t want to put words into Bernie’s mouth, he can do that well himself, and neither do I want to guess about what’s going to happen, because I think it’s … a difficult thing,” Grijalva told reporters after testifying before the platform panel.

But the Arizona liberal also emphasized a need for party leaders “to validate” the success of Sanders’s campaign and his effectiveness in energizing millions of voters, many of them young and new to the process. 

“As we work to unify the party, I think … Bernie’s going to do the right thing,” Grijalva said. 

“I expect that there be an overture, a genuine overture, to integrate the message and the 45 percent of the delegates that are going to be pledged to Bernie at the convention,” he added. 

“The whole campaign was about not just making a statement [but] winning. And as we go forward, we need to validate the effort. And I think the platform’s important in that validation, and I think Bernie’s and his delegates’ day in the sun at the convention is very important as well.”

Ben Kamisar contributed.