This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
The atmosphere in the room feels more like an old-school black church than it does a campaign event. The crowd that has assembled in Baltimore’s Charles North neighborhood—mostly black women greeting each other like long-lost friends and making small talk—is awaiting the arrival of Democratic Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland’s Fourth District, which is centered in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of the predominantly African American Prince George’s County.
Edwards is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Mikulski, who, after serving 30 years, announced her retirement last March. Since Maryland is a reliably blue state (the election of Republican Larry Hogan for governor notwithstanding), the winner of the April 26 Democratic primary will likely go on to win in November. Edwards burst onto the Maryland political scene in 2008 after defeating longtime Democratic Representative Albert Wynn. That contest—in which an African American woman challenged a member in good standing of the Congressional Black Caucus—was notable enough. Her victory was even more so.
At the campaign event in the Chesapeake Building, a murmur persists throughout the introductory remarks from campaign surrogates, as attendees discuss Edwards’s opponent and the presidential race. The chatter is replaced by cheers upon the congresswoman’s arrival.
Dressed in a stylish suit, Edwards is small in stature but has a big presence—and a populist message. “We live our lives on the ground where people work for minimum wage,” she tells the crowd, “and they can work 40, 60 hours in a week and still not make it to the poverty line.”
“We live our lives on the ground where you have to juggle the rent, and the mortgage,” she continues. “Maybe you’re late picking your kid up from day care and you get charged a dollar per minute,” Edwards says of the rising cost of child care and the rules that can overburden parents.
“In Maryland and across the country, our average student ends up with $25,591 in student loans. Student debt restricts young people’s ability to start a business,” she says, “or buy a house or even pay rent.”
“Or forget that,” she says, changing her tone. “It constrains their ability to get out of your basement.”
Just as Edwards terms herself a “true-blue progressive,” her opponent, Representative Chris Van Hollen, terms himself a progressive who can get things done. Van Hollen came to prominence in the 1990s as a delegate and then state senator in the Maryland General Assembly. Since he first won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 to represent Maryland’s Eighth District encompassing Montgomery County (home, probably, to more highly politicized liberal professionals than any other American suburb), Van Hollen has handily defeated his opponents in subsequent elections. He has held several leadership positions in the House, including ranking member on the House Budget Committee, and leadership positions in the Democratic Caucus.
In several ways, the Democratic primary race for Mikulski’s seat mirrors the Democratic primary race for president. Hillary Clinton and Chris Van Hollen represent their party’s establishment wing, while Donna Edwards and Bernie Sanders are newcomers to a larger stage who are known more for their leftist policies than for their ability to make deals. Maryland Democrats will choose between Sanders and Clinton on the same day they choose between Edwards and Van Hollen.
Some of the issues of contention that have arisen between Clinton and Sanders have also surfaced in the Van Hollen–Edwards race. Last April, in the midst of the battle over fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Edwards campaign criticized Van Hollen’s voting record on free-trade deals. Though Van Hollen came out in opposition to the fast-track bill, the Edwards campaign called his record “inconsistent.”
Her campaign pointed to Van Hollen’s support in 2011 for trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. Edwards and the majority of Democrats in the House voted against these deals.
The race between the two candidates has been tight from the beginning, with polls showing them either neck and neck or with one candidate slightly ahead. Both candidates remain popular in their respective home districts. The real fight is in Maryland’s other population center: Baltimore.
DONNA EDWARDS IS A divorced single mother who raised her now-27-year-old son on her own, a facet of her life she’s not afraid to relate to her politics. “We have to have a voice in the United States Senate who understands how we live our lives,” she told the women who came to the Charles North event. “I want you to know that there will be somebody in the United States Senate who has walked in those shoes.”
Edwards knows that her life story will resonate with a lot of Marylanders. She struggled at times, she says, raising her son as a single mother, and she acknowledges this is something voters may connect with. Maryland voters, she says, will step up and say, “Yes, they want somebody in the United States Senate who has walked in their shoes.”
Now that police brutality has moved to the forefront of national conversation after several high-profile incidents, including the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Edwards feels that her presence in the Senate will matter even more. “It will be critically important to have a voice like mine at the table,” she says. “We don’t need people talking about us, and fixing things for us; we need to be at the table, fixing it for ourselves.”
The 57-year-old Yanceyville, North Carolina, native is one of 20 black women (including the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Stacey E. Plaskett of the Virgin Islands) serving in the 114th Congress. If she prevails on April 26 and goes on to win the general election in November, Edwards would become the second black woman to serve in the Senate, after Carol Moseley Braun, who served one term as senator of Illinois from 1993 to 1999.
Edwards’s record in Congress places her clearly on the left. Representing a predominantly African American district that bore the brunt of the foreclosure crisis in the Washington, D.C., area, she initially opposed the House version of the $700 billion bailout bill, saying it didn’t do enough to help underwater homeowners. A supporter of single-payer health care who was disappointed when it was taken off the table in 2009, she authored a provision that would hold insurance companies accountable for exorbitant premium increases—a provision that made it into the final text of the Affordable Care Act.
Before entering electoral politics, Edwards headed several progressive organizations, including the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Arca Foundation, which funds a range of liberal groups. In 2006, Edwards began her first political campaign mounting a challenge to Wynn, who proved vulnerable in part because of a record that included supporting repeal of the estate tax and backing oil- and gas-industry subsidies, not to mention his desire to bring gambling to Prince George’s County. Edwards narrowly lost to Wynn by 2,731 votes.
But two years later, Edwards defeated Wynn handily with 59 percent of the vote to Wynn’s 37 percent. She went on to win a special election in June 2008 after Wynn resigned early.
In much the same way that Bernie Sanders has attacked Hillary Clinton, Edwards accuses Van Hollen of being part of the in-crowd. “Van Hollen has been kind of an establishment go-along-to-get-along Democrat,” she says. She acknowledges that their voting records are fairly similar. “But the question is, where are you going to put your energy and your resources?” she says, positioning herself as a tribune for Maryland’s poor and minority communities.
CHRIS VAN HOLLEN IS one of the stars of the Democratic Party. Born to diplomat parents in Karachi, Pakistan, the 57-year-old legislator—like Edwards, an attorney—worked as a legislative staffer, then served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1990 to 1994 and the Maryland State Senate from 1994 to 2002. When he ran for Congress in 2002, Maryland’s Eighth District was heavily Democratic, but represented by Republican Connie Morella—who often broke with her party to vote with Democrats.
That year, Van Hollen won a competitive primary over Mark Kennedy Shriver and former Bill Clinton aide Ira Shapiro; he then went on to defeat Morella in the general election. Just three years later and after the Democrats won back control of the House, then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appointed Van Hollen to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the political arm of the House Democrats in charge of recruiting and supporting Democratic candidates. In 2010, stepping down from the DCCC, Van Hollen was elected the chair of the House Budget Committee.
In the House, Van Hollen has played a leading role in promoting campaign-finance reforms. In response to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, he authored the DISCLOSE Act, which would have compelled corporations to inform shareholders of their campaign contributions, as well as forbid corporations from contributing to campaigns if they had more than 20 percent foreign ownership or were recipients of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. In 2010, while the Democrats controlled the House and had a majority but not a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, the bill passed the House but fell one vote short of achieving cloture in the Senate, and hence never made it to the president’s desk.
In 2011, Van Hollen sued the Federal Election Commission, alleging that “regulatory capture” had caused it to fail to do any significant regulation of election laws. (Required by law to have three Democratic and three Republican members, the FEC has essentially been paralyzed for years.)
Another of Van Hollen’s signature issues has been gun control. In 2000, while a member of the Maryland General Assembly, he successfully championed Maryland’s safety trigger-lock law. Eight years later in the House, he voted against repealing portions of the Washington, D.C., firearm ban.
Van Hollen pushes back on the idea that the Maryland race provides any kind of microcosm of the Democratic presidential primary. “It’s nothing like the presidential race,” he told The American Prospect. “If you’ve spoken to the Maryland progressive community, they’re strongly backing me.” He argues that his endorsements from progressive groups like the Sierra Club and labor unions like the Service Employees International Union, along with his agenda, validate his credentials as a progressive—and not a corporate Democrat.
The difference between the two candidates isn’t to be found in their admittedly similar voting records, he says, but in results. “I think in Maryland, the issue isn’t voting records. The issue is, who is the candidate who has been able to advance a progressive agenda? If you really want to make a difference, it’s not enough to talk about these issues. You’ve got to get results at the community levels.”
The Washington Post—by far the most widely read paper in D.C.’s populous Maryland suburbs—made a similar argument in endorsing Van Hollen. “The main difference is that Mr. Van Hollen—pragmatic, detail-oriented, agile—could be a real force for accomplishment,” said the editorial board’s endorsement. “By contrast, Ms. Edwards, whose many attributes do not include a gift for team play, would reinforce Congress’s tendency toward stalemate along partisan lines.”
Whatever Edwards’s skills, or lack thereof, in “team play,” she hasn’t been able to win the backing of a number of her African American colleagues —including black Democrats from her district in Prince George’s County. Among the Maryland black elected officials supporting Van Hollen is State Senator Joanne Benson, who said, “We are looking for somebody who has the fire in their belly to serve, and that’s Chris Van Hollen.”
More striking still is the decision of the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee (CBC PAC) not to endorse Edwards. The 21-member board includes Wynn, whom Edwards unseated in 2008.
The PAC’s decision to not endorse Edwards came on the heels of its endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president. In response, ColorOfChange, a progressive organization, sent out an email blast to its supporters calling out the CBC PAC’s decision. By declining to endorse Edwards, the email said, it was ignoring her “historic bid to become only the second Black woman to be elected to the Senate.”
“We elevated both the Clinton endorsement and the sitting out of the Donna Edwards endorsement, because they created confusion for people around who speaks for black people,” ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson told The American Prospect.
The Congressional Black Caucus PAC and the CBC Foundation have been criticized for taking large corporate donations, and some critics have made a connection between that corporate money and odd votes by some caucus members on regulatory issues favored by big business. Formal caucus endorsements in contested primaries appear to be relatively rare, though the PAC has sometimes made donations to primary contenders, including California U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris.
Edwards has won support from a range of feminist organizations, among them Emily’s List. Despite that, she lags Van Hollen in fundraising. According to FEC filings, Van Hollen had $3.6 million in cash on hand at the end of 2015, while Edwards had only $300,000. Van Hollen claims that the majority of his monetary support comes from Maryland, while Edwards’s support comes mostly from outside groups.
AS THE PRIMARY approaches, the Van Hollen–Edwards race is shaping up to be a conundrum for liberal voters. Sebastian Johnson, a young progressive running for the Montgomery County Board of Education, has been a Van Hollen supporter for nearly a decade. Johnson was an intern in Van Hollen’s congressional district after graduating from high school in 2006. “That experience was part of what inspired me to become involved in policy and politics,” he says.
The 27-year-old Takoma Park, Maryland, native currently works at a progressive tax-policy institute. “Van Hollen has been great on those issues, making sure corporations are paying their fair share of taxes and that they aren’t hiding their profits offshore,” he says of the congressman’s stance on corporate taxes.
Valerie Ervin, the former chair of the Montgomery County Council who briefly ran for the congressional seat being vacated by Van Hollen, endorsed Edwards last November. Ervin, who is part of the Working Families Organization, is also a steering committee member of the Maryland for Bernie Sanders campaign.
Edwards’s team considers both the Sanders campaign and the Clinton campaign a boon for Edwards’s prospects. Clinton will turn out African American voters and women, which Edwards considers her base, while Sanders will turn out more progressive voters, also part of her base.
Edwards fares much better with black voters than the senator from Vermont. A January 11–16 Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies poll found that 65 percent of Maryland African Americans were supporting Edwards, compared with Van Hollen’s 15 percent. The same poll showed that African Americans in the state supported Clinton over Sanders by 61 percent to 6 percent. Sanders’s backing has surely risen since January, but a high Hillary turnout among black Maryland voters would almost surely benefit Edwards. In that poll, white Democrats favored Sanders over Clinton by 43 percent to 25 percent—suggesting that in order to win, Van Hollen will have to do well among Sanders supporters.
In the Maryland Senate race, the generational divide isn’t as clear-cut as it is in the contest between Clinton and Sanders. Van Hollen won a straw poll at the Young Democrats of Maryland convention; the candidates have split union support, like the presidential candidates; and while the CBC PAC declined to endorse Edwards, neither did it endorse Van Hollen. Polls have varied for the Maryland Senate race, but a March 4–8 Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll showed Edwards leading Van Hollen by six points. If Edwards wins, she may well be the one candidate this year to have benefited from both Clinton’s and Sanders’s campaigns.