Senate Candidate Donna Edwards Fights the Establishment for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Imagine, for a minute, if the next U.S. senator from Maryland was Democratic congresswoman Donna Edwards—a charismatic, principled, black single mother whose work as a national leader against domestic violence and grassroots activism has been a role model for women.


Imagine if she faced Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans and told them—as she told Fox News in 2013 after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s murder—that the struggle for racial justice doesn’t stop at one courthouse door. Or that America needs an economic agenda for women, as one in six women are stuck below the poverty line. Or how it is “wretched” when a Farm Bill passes without a penny for Meals on Wheels, food stamps for the poor, or public school lunch programs.

“It is time for people to walk in my son’s shoes,” Edwards said on camera, after Zimmerman’s acquittal. “To get in an elevator and have people step away from you. To be on a subway and have people sit someplace else because they don’t want to sit by you because they make assumptions about who you are. That is my child’s experience. That is my son’s experience, and the experience of so many African-American kids across this country. And it’s wrong.”

The U.S. Senate has not had an African-American woman since Illinois’ Carol Moseley-Braun was elected in 1992 and defeated after one term. Edwards is the kind of Democrat the Senate sorely needs, a progressive who has not lost touch with her real-world roots. Today, the Senate is 20 percent women, but only two women of color have ever served in that chamber: Moseley-Braun and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-HI.  

Edwards, who grew up in a military family, came to the House in a 2008 special election. She defied the odds-makers and Maryland’s Democratic Party insiders to win re-election ever since, even seeing her district redrawn to dilute her liberal base. She now faces Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Jr., a party insider and technocrat, in 2016’s spring primary, although other candidates may enter the fray.

In blue Maryland, that primary winner is likely to be the replacement for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Democratic incumbent and the Senate’s longest serving woman. But Edwards will have to run a populist, movement-driven campaign, as Van Hollen, who headed the House Democrat’s fundraising operation, has been lining up support from mainstream Democrats, such as Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Maryland elected officials, and reported this week that he has raised over $1 million.

Nonetheless, progressive groups that know both of them wasted no time in lining up behind Edwards. The pro-choice, pro-women EMILY’s List, MoveOn.org, CREDO, Democracy for America, Social Security Works, and others quickly issued endorsements. EMILY’s List said Edwards’ story was their story. Others said that Van Hollen, the House Budget Committee’s top Democratic negotiator, could not be trusted in dealing with Republicans, even if he later embraces a fine-print liberal solution.

“Unlike Van Hollen, Edwards has never wavered in her convictions, and as such has rallied activist liberals from Maryland and across the country behind her. She’s another Elizabeth Warren in the making,” wrote Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of Daily Kos, in a recent commentary on TheHill.com, which covers political Washington.

Stakes Are Huge

With Reid retiring and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a longtime friend of Wall Street and dealmaker, positioned to be the next Democratic leader, the last thing the Senate needs is another left-leaning white male with a drifting moral compass. Unfortunately, that is a fair description of Van Hollen—and not a new one. 

Since announcing his Senate campaign, Van Hollen has been in hot water with progressives because several years ago he, like President Obama, was willing to put smaller Social Security payment increases on the negotiating table with Republicans as part of a “grand bargain” on the budget and federal debt. Candidate Van Hollen quickly assessed the political landscape, where Democrats are now demanding that retiree benefits be expanded, and announced that he now supported what Edwards had been calling for all along—no cuts. The episode underscores why she is needed in the Senate, with her impact on party centrists.

“He is a super politician,” said one lobbyist who didn’t want to be named. “If you are for a [presidential] commission that was set up to cut Social Security, you can’t say that you are for saving Social Security. He was in the middle of Simpson-Bowles, the fiscal cliff, everything.”

AlterNet looked at that period—the 2012 budget battles, which saw compromises with cuts to Social Security and Medicare offered by Democrats, and resulted in the federal budget sequester and today’s nasty budget fights. We found other examples of why many progressives don’t trust Van Hollen.

Nearly three years ago, as Obama and the GOP mulled a grand deal (which never happened), Van Hollen got an earful because he was about to venture into enemy territory, being a high-profile speaker at a “fiscal summit” sponsored by Peter G. Peterson, a Wall Street billionaire obsessed with cutting spending to reduce the federal debt.

“Democrats, it seems to me, should boycott these events, instead of giving aid and comfort to one of the era’s great propaganda machines and allowing themselves to be window-dressing for a conservative agenda that is anti-jobs, anti-recovery, anti-social insurance, and just plain wrong-headed economics,” wrote Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect. “The press coverage of these events invariably reinforces the Peterson script that everyone’s for deficit reduction first, even people like Paul Ryan and Chris Van Hollen, who agree on nothing else."

Days later, Van Hollen was interviewed on Peterson’s stage by PBS’s Judy Woodruff and told a largely right-wing audience why the GOP’s budget ideas were terrible. But he also endorsed the framework laid out by Obama’s Simpson-Bowles commission, which was tasked with finding solutions to long-term debt issues. Van Hollen said cuts to future Social Security payments and Medicare health benefits would have to be a “starting point” and a “baseline” in negotiations. When Woodruff cited Kuttner’s criticism, Van Hollen's reply showed how he values making a deal more than protecting a core principle—that social insurance programs are earned from a lifetime of work and taxes, and need to be strengthened, not slashed.

“There may be some people who want to put their head in the sand with respect to our long-term deficit challenge,” Van Hollen began. “We have one in this country and we need to deal with it. But we need to deal with it in a smart way. In fact, the House Republican budget is the opposite… We are focused on pro-growth, and in a very balanced approach, to deficit reduction over a period of time.”

While Van Hollen was deep in 2012’s budget fights defending a dubious White House line, Donna Edwards was building a coalition to oppose Obama’s proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. She is a long-time activist, working on national issues such as stopping domestic violence and on local issues like making developers preserve access to the Potomac riverfront, union jobs and affordable housing.

Many parts of the TPP, which has still not been passed, fundamentally bothered Edwards, from allowing future international trade rules to override state and federal laws, to likely negative impacts on U.S. jobs, workers and manufacturers. Edwards explained that in a May 2012 letter to Obama signed by her and 68 other Democrat House members. Van Hollen was not among the signers.

That July, Edwards and eight other members of Congress wrote to the Judiciary Committee’s Republican chair, urging him to hold a hearing on the “varied approaches to each of the 11 constitutional amendments” that had been introduced to restore federal campaign finance laws after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. Edwards was the first House member to introduce a proposed amendment to revive congressional authority to regulate big money in federal elections. Van Hollen didn’t sign that letter, as he had been pushing for a narrower remedy: new legislation requiring fat cat donors to identify themselves.

That December, Edwards organized a letter campaign to House and Senate leadership in both parties—of which Van Hollen was a member—that opposed a change in the inflation formula for determining annual Social Security increases. Under consideration was the so-called chained CPI, which was stingier and would lower payments to retirees over time. The GOP considered chained CPI in play because Obama previously had endorsed it in the grand bargain talks.

“We must strengthen Social Security and address its long-term challenges,” read Edwards’ letter, which was signed by 57 House members (but again, not Van Hollen). “However, conflating the program with the need to reduce out nation’s deficit, and extending the chained CPI to Social Security, would reduce the already modest benefits guaranteed by the program.”

What Kind of Dem Does the Senate Need?

So far, no prospective 2016 race highlights the future of the Democratic Party as much as the Maryland Senate primary. The choice is between two very different styles of politicians, even as both candidates are seen as liberals from afar and are to the left of retiring Sen. Mikulski, according to ratings.

Progressives have already sided with Edwards. Party centrists, from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to many longtime Maryland elected officials, have defended Van Hollen or endorsed him outright. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi came to his defense on his previous Social Security stance, while carefully noting Edwards' principled position.

“I have every confidence in Mr. Van Hollen,” Pelosi told the Baltimore Sun last month, when asked about the Social Security criticism. “He’s gone to the table bringing values of our caucus to the negotiating table… And in every case, quite frankly, he has been a champion on these issues—but again, [that’s] a value that he shares with the other candidates who are running as well.”

The New York Times reported that Pelosi even tried to convince Van Hollen to stay in the House, where she said he was such a valued player he “could run for president from his House seat.”

Most of the race’s recent coverage has focused on how progressives pushed Van Hollen to revise his stance on Social Security. He now says that he does not favor any future trimming of payments by meager inflation indexes, and notes what he would do to shore up its finances past 2033, when more revenue is needed because of a surge in the Baby Boom generation. The simplest solution is lifting the cap on taxable earnings that fund Social Security—which now stop after the first $118,500 in earnings. This is what Edwards called for in her 2012 letter to House and Senate leaders.

“As an original co-sponsor of the Social Security 2100 Act to expand Social Security benefits, I am thrilled that more and more elected officials are recognizing that too many of America’s seniors live on the edge,” Edwards wrote in an email to supporters. “Too many Democrats—to say nothing of Republicans—remain all too willing to hurt grandparents, retired veterans, and the disabled in the name of ‘compromise.’ ”

There’s more at stake in the race than whether progressives have raised the profile of Social Security as an issue in 2016. The central question is, what does the next generation of Democratic leaders look like? In this regard, the Daily Kos’ Moulitsas is not quite correct in predicting that Edwards would be another Elizabeth Warren. Edwards has a different and distinctive voice.

In Congress, she’s won more money for science and math programs in Maryland’s schools, more money for historically black colleges and universities, drawn a firm line against Tea Party attacks on reproductive rights, and stood up to compromises on safety nets. She’s talked about the need for a women-centered economic agenda that includes a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, pay equity, pre-kindergarten and affordable childcare, saying “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

When challenged that these are progressive pipedreams in a reactionary Republican-run Congress, Edwards takes a deep breath and calmly explains why it’s necessary to keep going. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy,” she told one TV host, “but it is important for us to articulate an agenda that really responds to what women are experiencing in their lives; as breadwinners, as workers, and taking care of themselves and their families… 16.3 percent of women are in poverty now; that’s the highest it’s been in 17 years.”

It’s no wonder groups like EMILY’s List—which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast and supports pro-choice women candidates—see a kindred spirit in Edwards, a smart, talented woman who overcame many obstacles in private and public life to make a career in public service. “She is poised to make history as the second African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate—the first in over two decades,” EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock said in her endorsement.

Should Donna Edwards win her 2016 Maryland primary and election to the Senate next fall, she won’t just be representing a state of nearly 6 million people; she will represent nearly 55 million women of color across the United States.

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