Donna Edwards Runs Hard for the Senate in a Race Called the 'Fight for the Future of the Democratic Party' in the NY Times

News & Politics

Four-term progressive congresswoman Donna Edwards is leading against insider and seven-term congressman Chris Van Hollen in the April 26 Democratic primary race for the Senate in Maryland, despite Edwards' being outspent roughly 10-1 by her opponent. The Baltimore Sun has her up by 10 points, while other polls have the race closer.

This Senate race has taken on national significance because Edwards, if elected, would make history as only the second African American woman ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. She has emerged as the progressive, grassroots candidate with more than 56,000 donors building on her history of knocking off entrenched incumbent Albert Wynn to make it to Congress eight years ago. And she enjoys the support of national groups like Jim and Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Maryland’s Working Families Party.

The race for the Senate in Maryland is about something more than the pathetic lack of diversity in the Senate. The clash between Edwards and Von Hollen is being seen as a referendum on how progressive the Democratic Party will become. The New York Times magazine quotes Neil Sroka of Democracy for America: “We view primaries like this one as a fight over the future of the Democratic Party.”

Edwards’ positions on trade, banking, Social Security and Israel, among others, differentiate her from her liberal opponent Rep. Van Hollen, who has taken on the mantle of the insider candidate after racking up endorsements from Maryland’s political establishment and large donations, increasingly from business interests. For example, Van Hollen has been the recent recipient of more than $900,000 from the National Association of Realtors. In contrast, the largest amount of Edwards’ outside money comes from the legendary Emily’s List, whose goal, given the still embarrassing lack of women in public office in America, is to get women elected and protect reproductive rights.

Clearly, for many voters, there are not enough progressives, women or people of color in the Senate. Those factors, as well as Edwards’ charismatic personality and record of service, have generated a lot of enthusiasm for her candidacy.

Edwards told AlterNet why she wants to be in the Senate: "My campaign is about the grassroots stepping up and saying enough with business as usual in Washington. It’s about Maryland’s working families who deserve a progressive champion in the United States Senate. As Maryland’s next senator, I will fight for the woman who deserves equal pay for equal work, the worker who needs a living wage to provide for their family, and to hold the Wall Street banks that crashed our economy accountable."

Running Like Bernie

There are many ways Donna Edwards’ campaign resembles Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Both Van Hollen and Clinton are the favorites of the corporate media, party insiders and the deep-pocketed donors who pump a lot of money into campaigns. Edwards, like Sanders, has established a successful grassroots funding operation. She has been speaking to the hopes of an electorate fed up with insider politics that sets the bar very low for what can be accomplished. Van Hollen, like Clinton, has tried to position himself as the practical candidate who can wheel and deal and get things done.

Even the Washington Post sees the Sanders and Edwards analogy: “Edwards has pointed to Van Hollen’s support for past free-trade deals as a mark against him, just as Sanders has criticized Clinton’s support for trade pacts while she was first lady, a senator and secretary of state. Sanders says Clinton is beholden to big banks and Wall Street, and Edwards repeatedly refers to Van Hollen as a 'Wall Street Democrat'—although neither she nor Van Hollen is taking funds from Wall Street political action committees.”

In terms of foreign policy, Van Hollen has been endorsed by the right-wing Jewish group AIPAC, which hosted speeches by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders stayed on the West Coast during the AIPAC gathering. Donna Edwards has been endorsed by the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, and firmly supports Israel, but is also in favor of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, as is the Obama administration.

Also like Sanders, Edwards has been marginalized and victimized by the mainstream media, particularly the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post (which published 16 negative articles about Sanders in one day). Misrepresenting Edwards as being too idealistic, the Post also constantly portrays her as an activist and single mother and in editorials suggests she does not work well with others. This sexist portrayal is quite a stretch, as anyone who knows Edwards and her work understands that she is pragmatic and far from a rigid ideologue (just as Sanders has been very successful behind the scenes in D.C. shaping legislation).

Democratic donor and longtime Edwards supporter Patricia Bauman became so incensed at the Post’s drumbeat of distortions that she wrote a letter to the editor stating that the Post was consistently failing to give readers a full accounting of Edwards’ career and leadership in the House. Bauman explained:

Edwards, who is a lawyer, worked at Lockheed Martin on NASA’s Spacelab project. She was instrumental in the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. She has held several leadership positions in the House, including recruitment chair, steering and policy co-chair, and bipartisan women’s caucus co-chair, and she was the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee of the Science Committee. She worked with Public Citizen and was longtime executive director of the D.C.-based Arca Foundation.

The one flaw in the Edwards-Sanders analogy is that Edwards endorsed Hillary Clinton back in November, saying, “Hillary Clinton recognizes the problems this country faces, and wants to step up and take them on from the position where she can do the most good. This is exactly how glass ceilings are broken.” Van Hollen has also endorsed Clinton, and polls show Clinton to be more popular than Sanders in Maryland.

Still, Edwards admires what Sanders has done in terms of pushing forward important issues and mobilizing young voters, telling AlterNet, “Bernie Sanders is expressing what so many Marylanders are feeling: We’re tired of being dominated by big-money special interests. As Democrats, we need to embrace bold ideas and not be afraid to fight those interests holding working families back.”

Van Hollen’s Dilemma

So this is Chris Van Hollen's challenge: Donna Edwards is an energetic, Bernie-like candidate who has captured an enthusiastic grassroots following that has given her the momentum to take over the lead in the race. But Edwards is also a woman of color vying for a place in the overwhelmingly white Senate, with still only 20 percent women. She is backed wholeheartedly by the feminist establishment led by Emily’s List. It is a tough combination to beat.

Emily's List is a formidable foe for Van Hollen. Since its founding, Emily's List has helped elect move than 100 pro-choice Democratic women to the House, and 19 to the Senate. Emily's List states that "replacing Sen. Mikulski with another progressive fighter is a top priority—which is exactly why we're proud to support Donna Edwards. The more voters hear about Donna's lifelong fight for women and families, the more they realize she is the exact voice we need in the U.S. Senate. It's been over 17 years since we've had an African American woman's voice in the Senate."

The key support from Emily's List is a strong advertising campaign paid for by its independent expenditure arm Women Vote! voter mobilization program, which just released its third television ad in support of Edwards. The ad is part of a mid-six-figure buy on top of the one million paid media Emily's List ran in December and January targeting primary voters in both the Washington DC and Baltimore media markets.

Despite the support of Emily's List for Edwards, Van Hollen was always going to be a tough opponent. After a 12-year career in the Maryland Assembly, he defeated incumbent congresswoman Republican Connie Morella and has served seven terms in the House, which gives him 26 years holding office in Maryland. Since Maryland is a liberal state, it is practical to be an insider as well as have a very liberal voting record. Van Hollen has worked closely with many liberal issue groups over the course of his tenure, carrying forward their agendas and keeping them happy. He is also the former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which fundraises on behalf of congressional candidates and which helped him develop a deep donor base of wealthy individuals, giving him a large fundraising edge.

In the context of Van Hollen's insider status, a recent endorsement offers a telling moment and may have captured perhaps the fundamental issue in the campaign: Who deserves to represent a state as diverse as Maryland, which is 30 percent black and Latino? Recently, Maryland Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., when endorsing Van Hollen, said in part it was because Van Hollen was “born to the job.”

Edwards quickly jumped on that statement:

Born to the job? The fact is, our country’s systems and institutions have largely been led by people who have always looked like that senior elected official, not like me.

When I was born, no one ever thought I could be a United States senator, and why would they? There had never been a black woman elected to the Senate. And even now, there’s only been one—over 20 years ago. [Carole Moseley Braun, from Illinois, who was elected in 1992 and served one term.]

Edwards continued:

But I don’t listen to that type of talk and to that kind of entitlement.

I’m sure few thought that a small group of women could gather on my deck, conceive and build a national organization to fight domestic violence and then pass the Violence Against Women Act—but we did. And I’m sure few thought I could defeat an entrenched congressman [Albert Wynn], backed by millions of dollars of special interest money and every endorsement in the book, but I did.

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: “Thirty years ago, people told me I didn't look the part... and now, the part looks like me.”

Health Care Is a Centerpiece

Health care is a priority area where Edwards shows both her pragmatic and visionary sides. In typical fashion, she reveals that her commitment is based on personal experience; in this case fainting in a grocery store 23 years ago and ending up in the emergency room, not to mention her experience as a young mother raising her son alone after she separated from her husband:

I could not afford health-care coverage, so I went without. This emergency room visit put me in tremendous debt, and along with my nearly $100,000 in student loan obligations, almost drove me into bankruptcy, and we almost lost our home. America is the richest country in the world, and this story isn’t unfamiliar. Almost all of us have a loved one, a friend or a neighbor who’s been trapped underneath a pile of health-care bills or forced to go without care. There is no reason anyone should get sick and have nowhere to turn for treatment. And there is no reason getting sick should lead to losing your home. Health care should never be a privilege only for those who can afford it. It should be a fundamental right.

Edwards goes on to say that:

I went to Congress to work on health care, because I knew millions of Americans were facing a similar crisis in their lives. That’s why I was so proud to work on and lead the charge to pass the Affordable Care Act—a transformational change in the way health care is delivered in this country. The law isn’t perfect, we did not get a public option like I hoped, but it was an historic accomplishment—one President Obama does not get enough credit for. And while I am proud of that change, I do believe that we can do more.

That starts with stopping Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, but also pushing the bounds of what politicians in Washington think is possible. That’s why I support Medicare for All, which would provide everyone with access to health care—primary and preventative care, affordable prescription drugs, emergency care, mental health, vision and dental care.

One reason Edwards is running so strongly is that her vision is in sync with the goals and hopes of many progressives in Maryland and across the country. Jim Dean of the national Democrats for America explains it all in bullet points:

Donna Edwards is the true progressive in this all-important race. She is:

  • The only candidate in the race who won’t take a dime from the Wall Street banks
  • A leader in the fight against the TPP
  • A strong defender of Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose
  • A leader on racial justice and equality
  • The first member of Congress in Maryland to endorse marriage equality
  • The only candidate in the race opposed to mandatory minimum sentencing
  • A fighter for every family—regardless of zip code

Dean adds: "Donna Edwards is also the only candidate in the race who has always opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare—and who has been a leader in the fight to expand both crucial programs."

Everyone Looks to Baltimore

Most experts and analysts think the Maryland Senate race will be won in Baltimore. Edwards and Van Hollen are both well known and popular in their congressional districts, but not so well known in Baltimore, where massive urban problems persist and there was much anger and unrest when Freddie Gray died in police custody.

Sixty-five percent of Baltimore's population is African American, ranking the city fifth in the country in terms of African-American density.

With incumbent mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake not seeking reelection, there is a crowded field and a very competitive mayoral primary race, which should increase the turnout in Baltimore. At this point the Baltimore primary is boiling to a close race between former mayor Sheila Dixon and state senator Catherine Pugh, with more than a quarter of the voters undecided. The Baltimore mayoral race could offer Edwards a significant advantage, since the two leading candidates are women, along with the fact that women typically make up about two-thirds of the voters in Baltimore.

Certainly for both campaigns, turnout statewide will be crucial and campaigns will be hard at work earlier than April 27. Maryland has 10 days of early voting where voters can exercise same-day voter registration and the state also has no-excuse absentee voting. Most voters in Maryland do not have to present any identification at the polls. In addition, Maryland is one of 14 states (plus Washington DC) in which voting rights are restored to convicts when they finish their sentence, and there have been efforts to register those who were formally incarcerated.

Many eyes will be focused on Baltimore in April to see how this competitive Senate race turns out—and with it, perhaps the future path of the Democratic Party.

Note: Don Hazen has known and worked with Donna Edwards on various projects over 25 years.

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