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It's Time for Hardball, Says Progressive Congresswoman Donna Edwards

Those who expect Edwards to play from the margins to which left-wing politicians are frequently relegated will find themselves disappointed. She came to get stuff done.

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Research today suggests that people should be prepared to have "six, seven, eight careers," she told AlterNet in an exclusive interview in her congressional office. "So I feel like I'm on my trail," she added with a laugh.

A Non-Traditional Path

A day after a potential government shutdown was averted by Obama's conciliation on extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, Edwards danced her way to the podium (video) at the National Conference on Media Reform in Boston to the strains of a live band playing reggae.

Speaking of the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the House, Edwards offered a list of categories of people the Republicans "don't like," as she put it: senior citizens and  young people, for starters. "I'm challenged in this environment because I can be a little aggressive, some people tell me; I can put a little pedal to the metal, some people tell me," she said. Then she took a pile of printed paper and began tearing it into ever-smaller pieces. "And I think it's time that we do what I'm doing here, and rip up all of the old rules and the playbook, and do things just a little bit differently." By the time she finished the sentence, the paper was torn to small squares, which she tossed like confetti.

In beating the path to her congressional seat, Edwards truly did tear up that rule book, lighting the spark that has led to the primary-challenge philosophy that today drives such groups as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and FDL Action.

It was 2006, and Edwards had had just about enough with her local congressman, Rep. Al Wynn, for whom Edwards had clerked when Wynn was still in the state senate. During his 15 years in Congress representing a progressive, majority-African American district, Wynn voted for the war in Iraq, for an end to the estate tax, and for a bankruptcy bill that amounted to a big favor to the banks at the expense of financially devastated Americans. After a decade at the helm of Arca, Edwards, a single mother, was ready for a change. Her son had just graduated high school, freeing her from carpooling and other time-consuming activities of parenting.

"I spent, actually, a fair amount of time talking to other people who hold elected offices, asking them whether they’d be interested in running [against Wynn], and nobody would do it because they all thought it was an uphill battle and not possible, and that he was so strong in the district that they couldn’t challenge him," Edwards told AlterNet. "And finally one day -- I remember it was actually Good Friday in 2006 -- I drove to Annapolis and I filled out a very simple form to run for Congress, and I paid $100. And I didn’t tell anyone all weekend." She let loose a laugh. "Not a soul," she said. "Not my mom, not my son."  

With no institutional support and a shoestring campaign, Edwards came within 2,700 votes (out of 82,000 cast) -- 3 percent -- of unseating a seven-term congressman. So, in 2008, she came back at Wynn again in the primary -- this time with support from MoveOn, FDL Action and SEIU -- and won, becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Maryland on the same day Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States.

Those heady days of celebration were not to last long. The backlash against Obama came with a fury in the form of the Tea Party movement, especially as the president embarked on the legislative path to health-care reform. While Edwards took part in the battle against the brutal Tea Party pushback, she also found herself on the receiving end of criticism from some in the progressive community for ultimately signing onto a health-care bill that did not have a public option -- something she had pledged not to do. Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake and FDL Action wrote that Edwards should give back the money from a fundraiser that FDL Action had held for Edwards and others in Congress who had signed a pledge not to vote for a bill devoid of a public option.

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