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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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Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., was angry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, with the approval of the White House, had just offered up the deficit-reduction deal that would reel the nation in from the brink of default on the national debt, a precipice to which the country was marched by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Instead of taking on the Tea Partiers' demands for deep cuts to social programs in exchange for granting the president permission to raise the debt ceiling, the White House and the Senate majority leader were folding.

When the going gets tough, sometimes the tough take to Twitter. "Nada from million/billionaires," Edwards tweeted. "Corp tax loopholes aplenty; only sacrifice from the poor/middle class? Shared sacrifice, balance? Really?"

Edwards, joining most of her colleagues in the Progressive Caucus (where she serves as vice-chair) and the Congressional Black Caucus, refused to vote for the deal. Even after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords arrived on the House floor, for the first time since the Arizona congresswoman was shot earlier this year, to cast a "yes" vote, Edwards refused to budge. She had been among a group of House members who called on President Barack Obama to invoke the 14th amendment to the Constitution, and just go ahead and borrow what was needed to meet the government's obligations despite the debt ceiling imposed by Congress.

Two days later, after the bill was passed into law by the Senate, Edwards appeared on "Democracy Now!" expressing her exasperation with the White House. "I believe in hardball. I’ve argued that publicly," Edwards told host Amy Goodman. "And I think it’s time for the White House to engage in that kind of hardball, because these folks obviously don’t understand negotiation. They don’t understand compromise. They think compromise is a dirty word."

Pop Culture and Hard Politics

When you conjure an image of how a congresswoman looks and acts, it's probably not someone like Donna Edwards. Statuesque, with close-cropped hair and dangling earrings, Edwards has been known to quote the lyrics of a rock song on the House floor, as she did to stake out her position when the GOP threatened to shut down the government in April.

"Mr. Speaker, there have been a lot of quotes on this floor,” Edwards said, “so this one goes out to our young people and our seniors and service members and federal workers who stand to be affected by a government shutdown. It’s a lesson for my Republican colleagues courtesy of the White Stripes."

"You can't take the effect and make it the cause," Edwardsquoted (video). "But if you're heading to the grave, you don't blame the hearse."

And then there's the @repdonnaedwards Twitter feed, where she mixes it up with her followers -- no social media staffer microblogging the message-of-the-day for her. Here she is, taking on a tweeter who accused her of sloganeering:

@GenusUnknown actually, not a slogan. It's what I believe. I want my son and his peers 2 have a brighter future. What do u believe, truly?

Edwards, 53, was born to a military family; her father was in the Air Force, so the family moved every 18 months. After graduating from Wake Forest University -- where she was one of only six black women in her class -- she worked for Lockheed Engineering in the Spacelab program at the Goddard Flight Center before heading to law school at Franklin Pierce in 1986.

After clerking for Al Wynn in the Maryland State Senate, Edwards co-founded the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which helped lead the campaign to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. She went on to executive director posts, successively, at the Center for a New Democracy and the progressive Arca Foundation.

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.

Edwards weathered that storm, going on to rack up progressive street cred with her vote against the debt-ceiling deal, and her sponsorship of a constitutional amendment designed to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which unleashed unprecedented amounts of corporate money into the electoral process. Now in her second term, Edwards is recognized by no less than the Washington Post as a leading voice for progressives in Congress. But those who expect her to play from the margins that left-wing politicians are frequently relegated to will find themselves disappointed. She may be different, but she didn't come to Congress to be a quirky crank; she came to get stuff done.

She joined the leadership team of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the bane of the very groups that found inspiration in unconventional her path power through a primary challenge to an incumbent Democrat.

"I think my run for Congress and the particular person against whom I ran is a really special circumstance," Edwards told AlterNet. "[Wynn] was wildly afield from where Democrats are on a whole range of really big issues. And in our district, which happens to be one of the more progressive districts across the country, there was a real imbalance in our representation. That is not true in every district.  I do think it’s important to be thoughtful and constructive about when that needs to happen."

Not All Tea Partiers Are Alike

While Edwards brooks no bullying from Tea Party leaders, she does believe that some who sympathize with the Tea Party movement can be won over by progressives.

"I’m not actually quite sure that it’s a movement so much as a sentiment," she told AlterNet. "But I think that...there is still a lot of volatility within the electorate. And that volatility is caused, I think, because of people’s uncertainty about their own economic circumstance. A lot of people who have lost jobs that they don’t believe are ever coming back."

At the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis in June, Edwards took part in a panel discussion about the role of race in elections, extrapolating further her point about Tea Party sympathizers, reported at Religion Dispatches by Sarah Posner:

Edwards...maintained, "we make a mistake in lumping all these people who are on the edge with that extremist element," and "we're missing an opportunity" to work with those people on critical economic issues. Edwards recounted -- yes --a story of a constituent who came to a town hall, and told her that she was a Tea Partier, but liked what her congresswoman had to say.

Because Edwards believes the populist nature of the progressive message can resonate with those voters, even in districts that are not so liberal, she's appointed herself to be something of a progressive ambassador to congressional districts where the Democratic candidate may be more conservative or centrist, but needs every last vote -- including those of progressives -- in order to prevail.

She tells of going to one congressional district at the behest of a more conservative Democratic colleague, whom she left unnamed, in order to rally progressives to the polls.

But after the role played by conservative Blue Dog Democrats in scuttling a public option in the health-care bill, it seems that Edwards could be shoring up the candidacies of just the kind of Democrats progressive groups hope to target for primary challenges.

"I get it," Edwards says. But, she continues, she also wants to be part of a Congress that can get something done -- something good for progressives. Noting her place as the ranking member of the subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the House Committee Science and Technology*, Edwards says, "If we had a majority I would be the chairwoman. It doesn’t do me any good, as a progressive or any of us as progressives, to be a minority voice and a minority caucus. And so I have a very special interest in making sure that even in some of those marginal districts that swung over to Republicans that we gain them back. That is a progressive interest in making that happen.

"All of the major things that we were able to achieve out of two very productive sessions of Congress in the 110th and 111th Congress," Edwards continued, "happened because we had a lot of progressives who were chairing those committees."

At the Media Reform conference in April, she told the audience that she received a call from a woman in Ames, Iowa, asking Edwards to "fight for me" -- even though Ames is thousands of miles from Edwards' Maryland district -- because the Iowan said her interests weren't represented by her congressman (Republican Tom Lantham). "If you're from Ames," Edwards told the audience, "I want you to bring me a colleague who will fight with me."

Expanding the Table

A fighter for racial justice, Edwards is also conscious of the need for strong coalitions that include not just preternaturally progressive elements, but economically disenfranchised voters, as well.

So, you see her at the Media Reform Conference admonishing her audience to "make this room a little more brown" ("That's your fight," she told the largely white crowd), and several months later at Netroots Nation sounding a cautious note about the kind of language around race that she sees as less than helpful. When, during the question-and-answer session at her panel, an audience member used the term "white privilege," Edwards said that when people of color use that term, it can drive away white voters. "I want to make sure we're using language to draw people in who share the same concerns about declining jobs and opportunity," she added.

Back in her congressional office, she put it this way, "I feel that, having worked with progressive organizations and institutions for years, we have to expand the table of people we are speaking with, who are listening to us, and who we’re listening to."

*CORRECTION:The original version of this story misstated the subcommittee on which Rep. Edwards is ranking member.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan
 
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