Vernon L. Simms, chief of staff for the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and the owner-operator of a home improvement business, died July 16 at Gilchrist Hospice Center in Towson. The longtime Gwynn Oak resident was 64.
No cause of death was available.
“Vernon was an extraordinary man who left a little piece of himself with each of us through his friendship and through his tireless work effort that his life took,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume. “My opinion that he was a master class in service to others, and never refused to assist when he was confronted by countless requests, assignments and challenges. The bottom line was that Vernon was a fixer of problems who had helped so many people that he almost became legendary among them, and for the way he got things done.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a statement: “I was very saddened to learn of Vernon Simms’s passing this weekend. He served my friend, the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, faithfully as his chief of staff and closest adviser for more than twenty years. I came to know him during that period of time and always appreciated the gifts he brought to the legislative process — his wisdom, his insights, his deep convictions. Vernon was a true public servant.”
Vernon LaFrancis Simms, who was the son of James Edward Simms Jr. and Viola Allen Simms, was born in Baltimore and raised in Walbrook Junction.
Mr. Simms, who was a graduate of Walbrook Senior High School, was affiliated with the Black Panther Party during the late 1970s and served the community through its Ten Point Platform and Program, and was a bodyguard for activist Angela Davis.
Mr. Simms worked as a paralegal for the Baltimore law firm of Singleton, Dashiell and Robinson, and was executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association, also in Baltimore.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, he served as executive director of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, a part of the state Department of Licensing and Regulation. The commission oversaw the issuance of licenses to contractors, subcontractors and salespeople involved in home improvement.
Mr. Simms told The Sun in a 1991 article that the commission “can also revoke or suspend licenses and levy fines against a contractor proven guilty of wrongdoing.”
While working for the commission in 1987, he met and fell in love with the former Linda Philson, a social worker, who also worked for the commission. They married in 1989.
After leaving the commission, Mr. Simms became the special assistant for government and community operations for Mr. Mfume, who represented the 7th Congressional District from 1987 to 1996, and when he left office to become president of the NAACP, he was succeeded by Mr. Cummings, who appointed Mr. Simms his chief of staff, a position he held until the congressman‘s death in 2019.
In his role of chief of staff, Mr. Simms led a staff of 21 in Washington and in the district offices to deliver constituent services. He also provided legislative support for Mr. Cummings, who was chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and was a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Simms provided advice and strategic direction to Cummings on a variety of political and legislative issues, and he was a conflict-resolution liaison for the Committee on Oversight and Reform when Cummings was chairman,” according to a biographical profile written by a daughter, Erin D. Johnson of Laurel.
Mr. Simms also served as the point of contact and liaison for the Maryland congressional delegation, Maryland state delegation and the Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County delegations.
When Mr. Cummings died in 2019, Mr. Simms told The Sun his boss “was very, very, very, very constituent-service oriented, so all of the employees have remained in place and some have commented that they are doing it to continue his legacy.”
“Congressman Elijah Cummings was, above all, was a man who cared about people,” Mr. Simms wrote in a 2019 article in the Baltimore Afro-American after Mr. Cummings’ death.
“He saw the infinite human potential in every woman, man and child that he encountered. He would try to pour his knowledge and love of life into young people regardless of their race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, gender or economic circumstances.”
He wrote that Mr. Cummings was a strong advocate for those who were jobless or who had just been released from prison.
In his piece, Mr. Simms wrote that it wasn’t unusual for staffers to receive an email from Mr. Cummings at 4 a.m. seeking help for a person “he had talked to in the gas station on North Avenue and McCulloh streets the night before.”
Said Mr. Mfume: “Vernon was a proud father and loyal husband and people instinctively liked him and he liked people in the hectic world of Capitol Hill where everything is helter-skelter. He was calm, reserved, patient and practical.”
In 2020, Mr. Simms was named director of the office for government relations for the Smithsonian Institution, a position he held until his death.
“Vernon was responsible for leading the Smithsonian’s efforts to promote and strengthen its relationship with Congress; the executive branch; and federal, state and local governments,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch said in a statement announcing Mr. Simms’ death. “Even though his Smithsonian tenure was brief, his impact was great. He brought a seasoned calm that allowed us to strengthen our relations with the political community.”
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Said Mr. Mfume: “What I’ve said to Linda and the family is that their loss is shared by so many friends and colleagues and others who like me, respected and loved learning the simple eloquence of his example. Vernon remains an example of class, courtesy and caring.”
Mr. Simms, who was a licensed contactor, also owned and operated Simms Home Improvement.
“He was self-taught and an avid reader,” his wife said. “If he wanted to know something, he’d study it.”
She added: “Vernon was always a hard worker who made himself indispensable.”
Mr. Simms enjoyed carpentry and traveling to Europe, and was an inveterate Ravens fan.
A memorial service was held Saturday at the Vaughn Greene Funeral Home in Randallstown.
In addition to his wife of 32 years, a retired patient rights advocate, and daughter, Mr. Simms is survived by a son, Kyle Simms of Gwynn Oak; another daughter, Candice L. Young of Baltimore; a sister, Janice Simms of Owings Mills; and four grandchildren.