We’ve Had 1 Black Woman Senator in 227 Years. Donna Edwards Is Running to Change That.

We’ve Had 1 Black Woman Senator in 227 Years. Donna Edwards Is Running to Change That.

We’ve Had 1 Black Woman Senator in 227 Years. Donna Edwards Is Running to Change That.

The progressive congresswoman’s personal story and reputation as a fighter has her surging in Maryland.


It’s a Saturday morning in early March, and a multiracial group of Unite Here Local 7 members are playing an organizing game. Split into three teams, they’re trying to figure out why sky-high hotel prices in some cities don’t translate into higher wages for hotel workers. (Hint: Low-wage cities like Baltimore don’t have strong unions.) The crowd is laughing and arguing as Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards slips into the room.

“Shhh… No!” she says, when a union staffer offers to bring her to the front to speak. Instead, Edwards joins a raucous team—cooks at Camden Yards, croupiers at the Horseshoe Casino, and housekeepers at the pricey Harbor hotels—as they try to figure out which US city has the highest-paid hotel workers. (It turns out to be New York.)

Only when the exercise ends does Edwards spring up to address the crowd about her insurgent bid to replace Senator Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring after five terms. “I was so excited to participate with my group—and we got it right on the wages!” she boasts with a broad smile.

Edwards had gotten some other good news that morning: A new Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll showed her leading her main rival, liberal Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, by 10 points in a head-to-head race. (Several other candidates are running but have only single-digit support. Update: A more recent Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found Edwards up by 4 points.) The race didn’t start out like this. Back in November, Edwards was trailing Van Hollen by 14 points—even among women voters—and losing much more decisively with a crucial Democratic constituency: donors. By the end of 2015, Van Hollen had outraised her by roughly 10 to one.

A narrative had taken hold, too: Edwards, the progressive woman, was a firebrand outsider and big talker, while Van Hollen was a quiet doer, bringing benefits to his district and working across the aisle with Republicans. Democrats outside of Maryland were introduced to the race last May in apocalyptic terms in Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine article “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016.” The Maryland primary battle, Draper argued, was shaping up to be a tale of the Left Gone Wild, with the “pugnacious” Edwards challenging the reliable, hardworking Van Hollen over what Draper described as minor policy differences—chiefly that in 2012, Van Hollen had endorsed the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission’s “framework” as “the right way to go” to achieve a bipartisan budget deal. The commission called for reductions and restructuring in Social Security and Medicare—the favorite solution of deficit hawks, but complete nonstarters with progressives. In November of 2012, Van Hollen told The Wall Street Journal that he was “willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan,” including increases to Medicare’s eligibility age. Hailing this “arithmetical common sense,” The Washington Post endorsed him this past March, calling Edwards “part of the problem in Washington.” Draper framed the Edwards insurgency more starkly, quoting Jon Cowan of the centrist group Third Way: “What is at stake in the Maryland Senate primary is literally nothing less than whether we will Tea Party the Democratic Party.”

Today, Van Hollen insists that he expressly didn’t “support the Social Security component” of Simpson-Bowles, which is true. Asked about his willingness to consider a hike in the Medicare eligibility age, he sounds exasperated. “Look, if you’re going to take that view, Congresswoman Edwards also said ‘Everything is on the table’ [during the debt-ceiling negotiation].” It’s clear he’s frustrated that his role in pursuing the fiscal grand bargain favored by President Obama has cost him the trust of progressives—even if it won him the lasting respect of the establishment media.

These days, with the polls shifting in Edwards’s favor, so has the narrative. Edwards was a domestic-violence activist who took the seat away from Al Wynn, the transactional eight-term African-American incumbent, in 2008. Wynn (who is now a lobbyist) and his allies have never forgiven her. But in 2016, as the Bernie Sanders campaign has shown, voters are finding political outsiders like Edwards compelling. In a year shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement, Edwards is riding a new wave of support in majority-black Baltimore, which was roiled by the police killing of Freddie Gray almost a year ago. Largely unknown when she began the campaign, the polls now have Edwards leading Van Hollen in Maryland’s biggest city 54 to 17 percent in a two-person race. She leads him by 16 points among women and by 51 points among black voters, many of whom are frustrated with a political establishment that hasn’t done enough on the issues plaguing the city. If Edwards wins in November, she would be only the second black woman ever to serve in the Senate.

* * *

The four-term congresswoman is also undeniably connecting to voters on the strength of her personal story. “I raised my son since he was 3, mostly on my own. I know what it means to pay a dollar a minute for overtime for your childcare,” she tells a rapt audience of mainly black women at the Unite Here Local 7 meeting. “I know what it’s like to juggle your rent and your electricity bill. I was one of the ones who didn’t have enough for groceries after paying for daycare. Sometimes I went to a local food pantry to get what I needed.” Speaking directly to the issue of police violence, Edwards adds: “I’m somebody who has raised a young man in a complicated environment. And my young black son needs to count as much as anybody else’s son.”

“She’s someone who knows what it’s like to live the way we do,” says Roxie Herbekian, Local 7’s president. “Chris Van Hollen is a very decent and effective congressperson. He’s been a good ally. It’s really nothing against him. We just have an opportunity to vote for someone who’s going to help on our issues, and also bring the diversity we need and would like to see to the Senate.”

With a father in the Air Force, Edwards attended 14 different schools before enrolling at Wake Forest University. She juggled law school and raising her newborn son, then went to work for the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), where she fought fiercely for the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

“She was working with people on the ground—victims, police, City Council members, public agencies—and she brought them into the fold,” says NNEDV’s then–board chair, Debby Tucker. “She helped draft VAWA, to take what we were hearing from the grassroots and translate it into legislation. Then we all lobbied like crazy women.”

Edwards’s life as a struggling single mom inspired one of her first achievements in Congress: having Maryland added to a US Department of Agriculture program that provides public-school children with not just a free breakfast or lunch, but a free dinner before they go home. She shares that story with the members of Local 7: “I wondered: ‘If they need breakfast and lunch, what happens to them at dinner?’ It turns out they were going hungry.”

“Yes, they were,” an older woman murmurs.

“As a mom, as somebody who struggled to put food on the table, I thought: ‘We need to make sure they have a healthy dinner.’”

“Amen!” the same woman calls out.

“Any one of my colleagues [in Maryland’s delegation] could have done that, but they didn’t. It’s not that I believe they think children should go hungry—they don’t. It’s that they didn’t have the perspective that I do,” Edwards continues, to nods and shouts of “Amen!” all around the room.

The board members of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC haven’t been as enthused. The PAC chose to stay neutral in the Maryland race—just a few days after it made waves by endorsing Hillary Clinton. The decision to back a liberal white woman and then diss a progressive black woman triggered a backlash. The civil-rights group Color of Change sent an e-mail to its 1 million–plus members, asserting that the PAC “claims to speak for Black people but is really a mouthpiece for corporate power.” The African-American women’s network Higher Heights for America came out swinging on behalf of Edwards. “It is disappointing that the CBC PAC did not take advantage of the opportunity to fire up the Democratic base in Maryland­—black women—to not only elect an exceedingly qualified black woman to the US Senate, but ensure high turnout for their other endorsed candidate, Secretary Clinton,” the group’s founder, Kimberly Peeler-Allen, told me in an e-mail.

Edwards herself took it with equanimity. “The [CBC] PAC board is filled with lobbyists, including Al Wynn,” she says. “I know why pharmaceutical lobbyists don’t support me: I want to negotiate prices for prescription drugs. I know why oil and gas and banking interests don’t support me.” And while Edwards has been endorsed by four CBC members, including progressive Milwaukee representative Gwen Moore, most state and local elected officials (including African Americans) have endorsed Van Hollen—some out of residual hostility after Edwards defeated Wynn, and some from a belief that Van Hollen will be more effective. “My interest is in working with someone in the Senate who I know very well and who is going to be able to move up very quickly to work on important issues to us, like securing resources,” said Rushern Baker, the county executive for Prince George’s County, when he endorsed Van Hollen.

A bigger blow came when the influential Service Employees International Union, which backed Edwards in 2008, endorsed Van Hollen this year. “We feel like she has turned her back toward labor,” Ricarra Jones, political organizer for SEIU Local 1199, told The Washington Post. (Jones didn’t answer a request from The Nation for comment.) More than one progressive told me that after supporting Edward in 2008, they had found her less than diligent about constituent services once she was elected. Edwards also made enemies during a redistricting battle that took Montgomery County out of her voter base and replaced it with portions of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. “She refused to involve herself in the process,” says Doyle Niemann, a former state delegate who plans to vote for Van Hollen, his old State House colleague. Niemann wound up in Edwards’s “new” district and complains that he never sees her: “She rarely comes to community events.”

Edwards bristles at the criticism of her role in the redistricting process. “I thought the redistricting plan disadvantaged people of color in Montgomery County,” she says. “I thought it was wrong, and I spoke out in opposition.”

* * *

Of late, however, the endorsements that Edwards hasn’t received seem minor compared with one she has: the enthusiastic backing of the pro-choice Democratic women’s group Emily’s List, which is set to spend about $2.4 million on her race—more money than it has ever put into a primary campaign. The group’s entry into the race has split some former allies: Van Hollen’s supporters object to the PAC spending so much money to defeat a liberal pro-choice male ally. It’s a family affair—both campaigns are run by Emily’s List alums—and there’s some bitterness. “I have a 100 percent record with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice,” notes a frustrated Van Hollen, who ran for the Maryland Assembly in 1989 as part of the “Choice Team,” a band of candidates who aimed to advance abortion rights in the state.

But Emily’s List got its start right here in Maryland 30 years ago, when cofounder Ellen Malcolm teamed up with Mikulski to make her the first Democratic woman ever elected to the Senate without the benefit of being a relative of a male senator. Mikulski faced two liberal men in her 1986 primary, and from the start the pro-women PAC faced charges of disloyalty from white liberal men and their female allies. “This has come up a lot over the years,” one Emily’s List veteran told me. “You’ll have a progressive, pro-choice man in a safe blue district, and we’ll be told, ‘Don’t be divisive—let him have the seat. Why don’t you go look for a race where you’re not fighting a guy like that?’ Well, you know what that means? The white guys get the easy seats, and the women and people of color are fighting in the toughest districts—and often losing.”

In recent days, The Washington Post went out of its way to editorialize about a Van Hollen–Edwards debate, attacking Edwards for “staking out ideologically pristine positions…. Her allergy to compromise, comparable to the disdain expressed by tea party Republicans, is what has brought Congress to a standstill,” the Post stated. There’s that “Tea Party” claim again: Centrists love to place themselves in between an intransigent right and an unrealistic left and claim that “both sides” are responsible for gridlock. But progressives have another theory: that the constant compromises made by liberals to appease increasingly implacable conservatives have moved the supposed “center” to the right and encouraged the Tea Party’s intransigence. “We’ve become enablers,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told me in October 2013, after Senator Ted Cruz forced the federal government to shut down for 16 days. The constant willingness of Democrats to be the so-called “grown-ups” in the face of government shutdowns, the debt-ceiling crisis, and the bipartisan folly of the “fiscal cliff” has emboldened a progressive movement that says sanity will be restored only when someone in the party shows the courage required to stand up to the ideological bullies.

That someone, they believe, is Edwards, who has been endorsed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and Blue America. Despite his important work on climate change, support for a financial-transaction tax, and overall progressive voting record, Van Hollen’s great sin was supporting President Obama’s effort to craft a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan that threatened Social Security and Medicare. In retrospect, the pushback to that folly is what began to move the center of gravity in the Democratic Party to the left.

Edwards is clearly riding the wave of disillusionment propelling the Sanders candidacy—which is ironic, since she has endorsed Hillary Clinton. In fact, the Maryland Democrat is uniquely positioned to benefit from the waves of support carrying both campaigns. She embodies Clinton’s insistence that women are the ultimate “outsiders,” in the White House as well as in the Senate. While that may strike some people as untrue when applied to a former first lady, US senator, and secretary of state, it resonates when it comes to an advocate for domestic-violence victims, union members, and black victims of police brutality. Edwards also channels Sanders’s insistence that the rules have been rigged on behalf of the powerful. “There’s a lot of voter frustration out there about the lack of jobs and opportunity; there’s a lot of vulnerability,” she tells me during an interview in her office. “I’m not part of the system, the political establishment, that has largely been responsible for it.”

Recently, Edwards got a boost when one of Van Hollen’s allies, Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., called him “a leader who has been born to the job.” Edwards quickly retorted in a fund-raising note circulated by Emily’s List: “I don’t believe anyone in this country was born to anything. That’s not what America is about, and that’s not what this campaign is about. In Senator Barbara Mikulski’s words: ‘30 years ago, people told me I didn’t look the part…and now, the part looks like me.’”

So far, that pitch is working. Unite Here member Annette McDaniels was impressed by Edwards on that Saturday morning in Baltimore. “Nothing was given to her; she worked for it,” McDaniels told me. “Donna is the first one of this group of candidates to really impress me.” Her friend Tawanda Forrest was gathering up Edwards lawn signs to give to friends. “I’m gonna go canvas for her,” she said. “She’s a single mom who’s always been union-positive. That’s the energy we need.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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