When the nation’s newest Congresswoman arrived in Maine in August to campaign for a fellow Democrat seeking an open House seat, she tossed aside the cautious talking points peddled by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Maryland’s Donna Edwards, who won a House seat in a June special election, was talking about how she and candidate Chellie Pingree would shake up Washington come January. Topic A: renewing the Constitution. Recalling her third House vote, on a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–which majority leader Steny Hoyer wanted Democrats to back despite its failure to address privacy concerns adequately–Edwards told Pingree backers in Cape Elizabeth, “I had to walk up to him on the floor of the United States Congress, and I had to tell him, ‘Steny, I will not vote for that FISA bill. And I won’t do it because I think that there is a way to protect the security of the United States, and there is a way to gather intelligence, that doesn’t intrude on…the rights of the American public. And we haven’t done that with FISA.’ And I told him that and then I went right over and cast my vote against that.”
To the cheers of Maine Democrats who, like their compatriots across the country, recognize that Washington will change only if the party’s Congressional caucus develops an edgier, more aggressively progressive stance, Edwards continued, “I know that Chellie Pingree is gonna be that kind of stand-up, I’ve-got-a-little-backbone Democrat.” That’s not just rhetoric; before they became candidates, Edwards and Pingree worked together as Washington outsiders promoting campaign finance, election and media reforms that put them decidedly at odds with the Bush administration and some of their fellow Democrats.
Edwards and Pingree are members of a loose sorority of Democratic women inspired to run for Congress by a shared sense that their party should do more to end the occupation in Iraq, defend civil liberties and stand up for economic justice. These women look likely to prevail in a year when Democrats are set to expand their House majority dramatically–perhaps flipping as many as the thirty-one GOP seats the party won in 2006, which gave it narrow control of the chamber.
But many Democrats elected in 2006 were satisfied simply to stamp a D on the Capitol, and frustration with the tepidness of House challenges to Bush administration policies and with the stale, bipartisan status quo–which has given Congress worse approval ratings than the president–has drawn a remarkable field of experienced activists into House races. Some, like Edwards, former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the progressive Arca Foundation, and Pingree, former president of Common Cause, are nationally known reformers; others, like Washington State’s Darcy Burner, are business leaders with long histories of community involvement; still others, like New Jersey’s Linda Stender and Nevada’s Dina Titus, developed their skills as state legislators.
What unites these progressive women, aside from their gender and their track records of getting things done, is a belief that a Democratic Congress must be about more than merely opposing Republicans. “I’m a big Democrat, right, but I also know that sometimes we don’t get it quite right,” explains Edwards. “We need people in Congress who are going to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire so that we do right by the American people–who aren’t going to just follow the party line, but who are going to make sure that the party line is the right line to follow.”