For Brad, a bus driver for the Maryland Transit Administration, the choice in this week’s Democratic primary is an unusual and difficult one: Two strong candidates – one representing undeniable stature and experience but the other giving him the option of casting a vote for greater diversity in the often-insular US Senate.
To this black voter in Baltimore, Rep. Chris Van Hollen has all the hallmarks of a top-tier pick – a congressman who’s part of the senior Democratic leadership and has a track record of getting things done. But Rep. Donna Edwards is also a member of Congress, and she brings something else to the table: the life-experience of being an African-American woman.
“I really like them both,” said Brad (who asked to go by first name only), as he showed up last week to vote early in Maryland’s April 26 primary. “I want to support our sisters and the African-American community, but Van Hollen’s record stands for itself.”
Moments later, the bus driver exited a voting station in the neighborhood of North Park Heights. Congresswoman Edwards had gotten his vote.
Identity politics is hard at work in the Maryland Democratic primary for the US Senate, and unabashedly so. Edwards, the state’s first African-American woman elected to Congress, is heavily pushing her personal story as a single mom who knows what it’s like to be poor and raise a black son. She says she can bring a unique perspective to a chamber that has only two African-Americans and 20 women. Only one other black woman has ever been elected to the Senate.
She’s the underdog. Representative Van Hollen has a long history in the state's politics.
Yet Edwards’s narrative is resonating with a good many white voters as well as with African-Americans, and in many ways her bid aligns with the tenor of an election season where one of the overarching messages is one of US voters embracing outsiders over status-quo choices.
Symbolically, too, the Senate slot that’s opening up is a woman’s seat. The candidates are vying to replace the retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski – the longest-serving woman in the Senate, a Baltimorean beloved by Marylanders for her pioneering role and fierce advocacy for her constituents.
With all this making for a high-intensity primary battle, Edwards appears to be connecting with black voters here in Baltimore, where the race will likely be decided.
“She’s me! I’m her! I’m a single father,” says Michael Johnson, who was also at the early voting site in Baltimore’s North Park Heights. He can’t understand why voters are “struggling over an African-American of her quality” – an attorney, a three-term congresswoman, an outspoken progressive, and a dogged community activist.
Both Van Hollen and Edwards represent suburban Washington districts and have campaigned hard in Baltimore. Polls show the statewide contest sharply divided along racial lines, with both candidates viewed favorably by voters. While the race has been close, the most recent poll, by Monmouth University, has Van Hollen ahead by 16 points – with 11 percent of voters still undecided.
In that poll, Von Hollen has a large lead among white voters (73 percent to 16 percent), while Edwards leads among African Americans (62 percent to 26 percent). In 2008, black voters accounted for 37 percent of Democratic primary voters in Maryland. Early voting has been robust, especially in Baltimore, with an open mayoral race a year after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody caused riots in the city. High turnout for the mayor’s race could help Edwards, says Jennifer Duffy, of the independent Cook Political Report.
Adding to the intrigue: This isn’t much about which candidate looks more electable in the fall. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2-to-1 in Maryland.
“They’re able to consider diversity and inclusion” without having to be concerned about who is most electable, says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington.
'Someone who can be a Mikulski'
For not a few voters, the fact that a woman has long held the seat may make a difference. Small in stature but a towering figure, Senator Mikulski was one of only two women in the Senate when she arrived after the 1986 election. She leads a regular bipartisan luncheon for female senators – one of the few forums on the Hill where members of both parties privately come together.
But this can cut two ways. She’s a woman, but she’s also got a reputation as unusually effective – in roles that include rising to be top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee in recent years.
Asked for her perspective on the Maryland race, Mikulski friend Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California answers that “the most important thing is someone who can be like a Mikulski,” adding that “when God made Barbara, he broke the mold. There aren’t many.”
When Senator Feinstein touts Mikulski’s “effectiveness,” she’s making a case that many Maryland voters see as an argument for Van Hollen.
Here in Baltimore, at a recent early-voting event for Van Hollen by the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, several African-Americans pointed to the congressman’s record as the reason for their support.
“He’s done a better job” than Edwards, says James Ray, sporting a purple union cap. Being an African-American is not the primary thing, he says. “It’s all about who is going to help us get sick pay, who’s going to make sure kids get the right schooling.”
(Van Hollen ran on education when he first entered state politics and led a successful effort to increase funding for Maryland schools.)
In Silver Spring, a Washington-area suburb that’s in Van Hollen’s district, Monica Peterschmidt says that while she would like to vote for a woman, “if you vote for a symbolic candidate, you get a symbolic result.” She knows Van Hollen from her years of working in state government and likes the way he reaches across the aisle to seek compromise.
Her husband, Peter Ettinger, chimes in that he once had a passport emergency and when he called Edwards’s office – Silver Spring used to be in her district – he got no help. So he called Van Hollen’s office and the problem was solved in an hour.
Van Hollen touts that record of constituent service, while pointing to complaints of from Edwards’s constituents that she's not very responsive. Recently, 100 African-American women community leaders in Maryland endorsed him – including from Edwards's own backyard in Prince Georges County.
“At the end of the day, people of all races and all backgrounds and both genders want somebody who is on the ground delivering results that make a meaningful difference in their lives, and that’s what I’ve done,” says Van Hollen in an interview.
The son of a diplomat with 12 years in the Maryland state legislature and 14 years as a congressman, he is a legislator’s legislator. He has been a key player in budget negotiations. He helped write the Affordable Care Act, and the economic stimulus package to counter the great recession of 2007-2009.
A single mom with a powerful story
Edwards disputes the critique that’s she’s unresponsive to constituents, saying that “no other member of Congress” offers a job fair, college fair, housing foreclosure prevention forums, and programs for women-owned businesses.
Before she got to Congress, Edwards co-founded the National Network to End Domestic Violence and pushed to pass the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. She is backed by Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates. But the political action committee of the Congressional Black Caucus has not endorsed her.
Appearing at the North Park Heights early voting station last week, Edwards said in an interview that people are rallying around the “perspective” she would bring to the Senate – as a strong progressive, fighting for the interests of working people, “from the single moms, to those of us who have raised young African-American men in a complicated environment.”
At a recent Democratic antipoverty hearing, she explained how she used to ride her bike to take her son to day care, take the bike to the bus, the bus to work, and then get fined late fees if she was delayed in picking up her son. By the end of the week, those fees could mean the difference between groceries or not.
At the Baltimore voting station, Edwards has an enthusiastic admirer just a few feet down the sidewalk in Sharon Middleton, a Baltimore councilwoman who represents the district of Park Heights, which she describes as a “distressed” neighborhood.
“I know Van Hollen has a wonderful record but he’s a different personality – 2016 is a time of change,” says Ms. Middleton, who is leaning toward Edwards. She likes Edwards’s ability to connect with the needs of voters and strongly backs sending a woman to the Senate.
“Speaking as a female in elected office, many times I feel it’s a man’s business,” Middleton says. Edwards may not have the résumé of her competitor, “but people learn and improve as they move on.”