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Rep. Elijah Cummings Jason Chaffetz Arches
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Voices of civility: when Elijah Cummings and Jason Chaffetz visited each others’ districts

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, visits Arches National Park with former Rep. Jason Chaffetz in August 2014. The two congressmen visited each others' districts to better understand each other and the unique needs of their very different parts of the country. Photo: Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As pundits across the country remember a Maryland Democrat who headed the House Oversight Committee, Utah remembers the time Elijah Cummings and a political opposite, former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, came together for a civility tour.

Cummings and Chaffetz

Rep. Cummings came to the Beehive State in August 2014, at the special invitation of Republican Jason Chaffetz. While here, he took part in a town hall on the Doug Wright Show on KSL NewsRadio, talking about how the two men had learned you don’t have to agree to be friends.

“This is an opportunity I never thought I’d have,” said Wright as he introduced Cummings on the air.

Cummings talked about exchanging visits with Chaffetz to each other’s district.

“I often say that I don’t worry who I’m fighting against; I worry about what I’m fighting for. And I wanted him to have that opportunity to meet some folks and to understand what they go through every day,” said Cummings.

Touring each other’s districts to find common ground

While in Utah, Cummings went on a boat trip down the Colorado River and visited Arches National Park, then met with county commissioners and local business owners.

“I had a chance to see things that I probably never would have seen if the doors had not been opened by Congressman Chaffetz for me to come here and for him to come to my district, ” he said.

Chaffetz said the two decided to “trade” visits to home districts to gain a better understanding of challenges that dominate the vastly different regions — and to build political bridges that seem rare in today’s Washington.

“If you break bread with somebody, you get to know somebody, it makes it much easier to sit down and actually make the case. I don’t think that compromise is a dirty word,” said Chaffetz.

“We have to find a way for Democrats and Republicans to work together because when we don’t work together the people suffer,” said Cummings.

A reputation in Baltimore and beyond

Cummings, 68, died Thursday at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital due to “complications concerning longstanding health challenges,” his office said in a statement.

By late Thursday morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the flags over the US Capitol to fly at half-staff. She opened her weekly news conference with a tribute to Cummings, noting his ability to cross party lines.

“Elijah was a fighter for low income and prescription drugs, reaching across the aisle to do so. He always chose to reach across the aisle and treat all of our colleagues with respect and even had dialogue with the President for a while on this subject,” Pelosi said.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, described Cummings as a good man who would help even a political opponent.

“There is a void in the House today that will be hard to fill,” Graham said.

Cummings grew up in Baltimore and continued to live there as a congressman. Coming of age during the civil rights movement, he recalled being beaten and having rocks and bottles thrown at him as he tried to help integrate a pool near his home. Later, he became the first African-American to serve as Maryland’s Speaker Pro Tem. Cummings was elected to Congress in 1996.