It is not often that a serious contender for a US Senate seat announces her candidacy with talk of grassroots environmental activism, fighting for union jobs and “protecting women’s reproductive rights from Tea Party attacks,” or with a pledge to answer proposals to “compromise away Social Security and Medicare” with absolute opposition—“no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands,’ ‘buts’ or ‘willing to considers.’”
Then again, it is not often that Senate races feature candidates like Donna Edwards, the Maryland congresswoman who entered politics only after a long career as an activist on the outside demanding that Congress act on behalf of women, people of color, workers and abandoned communities.
When US Senator Barbara Mikulski decided not to seek a sixth term in 2016, one of the most prominent and powerful Democrats in Congress, US Representative Chris Van Hollen, moved immediately to claim the seat. A Capitol Hill veteran with a reasonably liberal record and a history of working closely with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, Van Hollen scored an early endorsement from Senator minority leader Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the chamber who is working hard to reclaim the majority status that his party lost in 2014. He’s also secured important endorsements in Maryland, including that of former state Democratic Party chair Susan Turnbull, who hailed the congressman as an “incredibly effective fighter for progressive causes.”
Van Hollen’s opening gambit was strong, but not strong enough to shut down the competition. The race was always expected to attract a number of candidates, as Senate seats do not come open all that frequently in Maryland. And the prospect of a competitive Democratic primary caught the attention of activists who want the party’s Senate caucus to focus on economic and social justice fundamentals and on constitutional reform of a broken political process.
Progressive groups began last week to openly urge Edwards to consider a run. Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched campaigns to draft Maryland’s first African-American congresswoman into the contest. “Donna Edwards has proven time and again that she’s a bold progressive,” wrote PCCC’s Adam Green in a “Donna’s On Our Side” message.
“She’s not just an ally—she’s one of us,” declared Green.
Serious and issue-focused, Edwards has a record of getting out front on behalf of bold positions—even when her party is going slow. She got elected to Congress the hard way in 2008, by mounting a successful anti-war, economic-populist primary challenge to an entrenched Democratic incumbent.
But her entry into electoral politics came after years of grassroots and policy activism.
The first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which she co-founded, Edwards played an important role in advocating for passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. She also worked with Public Citizen and served as executive director of the Center for a New Democracy before becoming executive director of the progressive Arca Foundation, where she was a champion of media reform and efforts to clean up American politics.
It was her activist zeal, and her sense that the Democratic Party was insufficiently engaged at the grassroots, that led Edwards to run for Congress. Edwards said from the start that she was not just running against the conservative agenda; she was running to “push the limits” of the Democratic Party and American politics. “As Democrats, we’ve been too timid in terms of what our expectations are,” she explained. “I think a lot of us have come to realize that it’s important to be on the inside. Years ago, Paul Wellstone used to ask me to work in his Senate office. I would say, ‘No, no, I’m much more comfortable on the outside.’ Now, like a lot of progressives, I’ve realized that Paul was right. The work progressives do on the outside is essential, but more of us have to be on the inside if we’re going to make the Democratic Party the ally we need to change the Congress and the country.”
Since her election, Edwards has often made the connection between grassroots activism and congressional action. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, when most Democrats were talking about tepid reforms, Edwards proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of citizens and their elected representatives to enact meaningful campaign finance laws—and to prevent the bartering off of elections to the highest corporate bidder.
Now, five years after the Citizens United ruling, President Obama and most Democratic senators back some sort of constitutional amendment as a response to the Supreme Court majority’s political meddling on behalf of billionaires and corporate interests. When Edwards stepped up in February 2010, however, she was way ahead of her party. Yet the congresswoman was not cautious in her approach. She said at the time that an amendment was not a strategic option—it was a democratic necessity. “The ruling reached by the Roberts Court overturned decades of legal precedent by allowing corporations unfettered spending in our political campaigns,” explained Edwards. “Another law will not rectify this disastrous decision. A Constitutional Amendment is necessary to undo what this Court has done.”
That kind of talk won’t go down well with the billionaires and the corporate interests who have come to control so much of our politics. And Edwards acknowledges that, in her Senate race, “The corporate special interests are going to come at me with all their money…”
But Edwards has always had a clear sense of which side she is on in the equation proposed a century ago by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
“Justice Brandeis got it right: ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,’” she said when she introduced her amendment. “It is time we remove corporate influence from our policies and our politics. We cannot allow corporations to dominate our elections, to do so would be both undemocratic and unfair to ordinary citizens.”
Read Next: John Nichols on police reform in Wisconsin