Donna Edwards Is One Of Us

An interview with Maryland's first black congresswoman.

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Donna Edwards has a flare for oration. When I arrive at her Maryland campaign headquarters in late summer 2015, Edwards's team — enthusiastic, spritely; no one looks much older than 30— assures me I'm in for a rich and winding conversation. The walls are tacked with handmade posters that say "I'm on #TeamDonna." "I love stopping by her office. Mention bikes! You and Donna will talk all day," says Yasmine Evans, a 25-year-old staffer and Maryland native who has supported Congresswoman Edwards since she became Maryland's first black congresswoman, in 2008. 

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And Evans is right. Edwards, 57, and I immediately settle into a talk so familiar it is uncanny, swapping stories on the perils of fixies as easily as the perils of student debt. "I was in debt when I ran for Congress," Edwards says before adding with a wry smile, "and I still won." 

Edwards's rhetorical gifts will serve her well if she becomes a senator. She's long advocated for those constituencies much of the Democratic Party has too frequently ignored. Just this past October, Edwards held the House of Representatives floor until she was cut off, naming each of the 301 Maryland citizens who died as a result of gun violence in 2015. In response to the armed occupation of the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this winter, Edwards issued a statement calling out media outlets for biased coverage with respect to white militants compared to actions carried out by black activists. For eight years, Edwards has seamlessly melded her instincts as a community activist with her platform as a representative of the fourth district of Maryland, specifically its minority and female populations. Edwards has increased funding for math and science in elementary schools, fought against zoning laws and gerrymandering, and introduced women-centered economic policies to Maryland. Before joining Congress, Edwards served as the first director and the co-founder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She was instrumental in the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

In turn, Edwards's progressive base backs her out of a loyalty fixed in hope rather than party-line complacency, as Edwards's political origin story informs her authenticity. Edwards is a single black mother who came to office from grassroots activism rather than as a D.C. political operative. When Edwards announced her bid for Senate in early 2015, national organizations like EMILY's List and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee came out in unilateral support. Adam Green of the PCCC said in the organization's endorsement: "Donna Edwards has proven time and again that she's a bold progressive. She's not just an ally — she's one of us."

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Currently, there are no black women serving in the U.S. Senate. If Congresswoman Edwards wins, she'll become the first to serve since 1998, becoming only the second in U.S. history. Edwards embraces the outsider role she represents among D.C. players, revels in it even, and she is prepared to use her engagement with grassroots groups to push the party toward real progressivism. 

But Edwards knows, as much as she loves her party, that it won't be easy. When I call her five months after our initial interview, as the race between her and Congressman Chris Van Hollen intensifies, Congresswoman Edwards is disarmingly blunt. "The political establishment is never going to support somebody like me because I'm responsive to ordinary working people and not to the political class." In our interview, Edwards talks about the need for progressivism within the party, Black Lives Matter, gun violence, and the example Baltimore can set for the rest of America. 

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Doreen St. Félix: Currently, you serve on three clean-energy subcommittees. In the past, you fought against Republican attacks on the Clean Water Act and conducted grassroots environmental activism in your own hometown of Prince George's County. What's the state of environmental activism in this country, especially across race and cities?  

Donna Edwards: When I think about the work we did in our local area, trying to protect our natural resources, our river, our access to the waterways, green space, I realize that in our local area, this wasn't just a fight to protect the Chesapeake Bay. The bay is hours from our community. Reauthorizing the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Restoration Program was about rethinking what protection of the bay looks like. It's about protecting the quality of the air and the water in our own communities and urging the mainstream environmental community not just to have us take up their cause, but for them to take up our urban cause. 

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DSF: Were you part of an official organization? 

DE: Before we became kind of official, if you will, it was very local, the campaign to reinvest in the heart of Prince George's County, Maryland. We wanted to call ourselves what we were, and that was that we were engaged in a campaign that matched our concern for our local environment with the need to reinvest in our local communities and to champion development that provided access to the rivers and hiking and biking and walking trails. Too often, those kinds of amenities are ignored in black and brown communities, while they're promoted and highlighted in other communities. We formed our own neighborhood working group. We would meet at my house in the evenings, strategizing about how we were going to tackle the problem, what we were going to do in the zoning and planning meeting, how we were going to work with our local Sierra Club, how we were going to coordinate with our neighborhood association to make our neighbors aware the city was attempting to cut our walking and biking routes. 

We even engaged in door-to-door knocking! We did it the old-fashioned way. It wasn't just a group of leaders talking. It was knowing we had the backing of our whole community. And we really cared — you know I had my son on the back of my bike everywhere I went?

DSF: Wow! To and from work every day? 

DE: Oh yes. I'm a single mother, and I never really had a disposable income. Before I had my first car, that's what I did. Back and forth. I still love riding my bike around, but now I have a car. [Laughs.] 

DSF: Let's go back to July of last year, when you spoke at Netroots. Joan Walsh at Salon said of your speech, "You might say [Edwards] gave a Black Lives Matters speech that integrated economic populism throughout." How are you processing Senator Sanders's and Secretary Clinton's approaches to integrating Black Lives Matter in their campaign promises?

DE: I wasn't really thinking about what the presidential candidates were or were not saying with respect to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, my speech came the day before the presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders spoke at Netroots. Yet I felt mine probably better articulated and narrated the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement and leaders with broader progressive policies. 

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I never made a distinction, and maybe that's because of the intractable relationship between my progressive politics and my concern for black communities and black lives. For me, it's a natural connection, and that's what you heard in the speech. I think it's important for our political leadership to give a voice to what I believe is a transitional and transformational movement. When I hear Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders increasingly address Black Lives Matter, I think they are incorporating those issues and concerns into their philosophy of the role and responsibility of the government. 

DSF: Is it fair to say, then, that you consider Black Lives Matter as the new turn in progressivism, one that may force the Democratic Party out of its current complacency on race and economic inequality?

DE: Anybody who argues that the Black Lives Matter movement is just an aside is completely wrong. It's had a profound impact already on the way our presidential candidates are campaigning for the nation. For example, I look at the way in which Occupy Wall Street was dismissed, and yet the very vision of Occupy Wall Street's demand for a new economic compact with the American people is tenable today. I was one of the first elected officials to go out and stand with a group of Occupy Wall Street people in D.C. These movements are really important in terms of influencing public and economic policy and its impact on poor middle-class communities. 

DSF: As a member of Congress, you've stated you would rather listen to what activists are saying and then translate those demands into public policy. At this stage in your campaign, have you been meeting with groups? Are there certain pinpoints, say, around income inequality or education initiatives, you are now thinking of, should you win?

DE: Not only have I been meeting with activists and community leaders, but I feel like the demands they request I've been connected to certainly my entire political life, but definitely my entire public-policy life. My loan debt was about $100,000. I was a single working mother. I have a black son. Their demands have to do with stopping the rampant surge of gun violence in our communities. They have to do with improving the economic prospects of our young population. 

I think that from a policy level, we have an important responsibility as policymakers to invest in schools and education, not just in neighborhoods where people can afford it but in every single neighborhood. It's why when I came to Congress I worked on the after-school-suppers program for Maryland, because I know that kids can't possibly learn if they're hungry. It's a basic human need. We have to create public policy to change that. In some ways, I feel like the issues and concerns that I've been focused on for the better part of the last 20 years, and now certainly as a lawmaker and prospectively as a United States senator, are finally rising to the horizon because of the demands that are being placed by neighbors, community leaders, and activists. 

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DSF: Did you watch President Obama's recent town-hall meeting on gun control? You've always been an outspoken advocate, in fact, well before many of your peers in Washington. You're running for senator of Maryland, which means you're running to represent the people of Baltimore. With moments ranging from the Freddie Gray case to neighborhood gun violence, how do you address gun control as it affects your local constituency?

DE: In Maryland, and across the country, the overwhelming majority of us believe that we should have sensible gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of people who would do harm to themselves and others. It's a very simple proposition. Most of the American public is not arguing about that. The only people who don't agree are a very small contingent of very loud and powerful special interests being funded by, and driven by, the National Rifle Association. 

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I was so excited about the President's announcement of his executive action, because he has finally taken the helm. Background checks. Checks of registration of stolen and lost weapons, so that we're able to trace them so that we know if they're used in the commission of crimes. I told a story just the other day of three young girls — a three-year-old in Baltimore; a three-year-old here in my county, in Prince George's County; and a three-year-old in Washington, D.C. — who in the span of about a year all lost their lives to gun violence. Three-year-olds. People who argue against what the president has proposed argue that this isn't going to solve every gun crime. What a silly and specious argument, that we shouldn't do what it takes to save the life of one three-year-old because we can't save every life. I wouldn't want to be the one to say that to her mother, or to the mothers in Sandy Hook, or to the mothers on Baltimore streets every single day. I don't buy the argument that just because you can't solve everything means that you should do nothing. 

DSF: Reading up on your campaign, I know you're very popular within your region, but a tremendous amount of your financial support comes from national organizations like EMILY's List. Your base is recognizing you have the potential to be not only a representative for Maryland but a national representative for the interests of millions of black American women. Is there a message you'd like to tell your national supporters about your locality, Maryland?

DE: Maryland is like a lot of states, where we have one large city. Ours is Baltimore City. We need to have people in the United States Senate who understand the importance of investing in our urban core, so that it supports the strength and the health of an entire state and of a nation. I think one of the things that people should know is that, like a lot of places, we have some really great people who want to do the simplest thing: get up, go to a decent job that pays them a decent wage and meet their responsibilities, and then make sure that their children can lead a better life than they do. 

That's not only a dream for Marylanders, it's a dream for people who live in communities all across this country. It's the dream that my parents had for me and had for themselves. We need people in public office who aren't just talking about things at a 30,000-foot level, because people are living their lives on the ground. They're living their lives on the ground of paying exorbitant costs for child care. They're living their lives on the ground when it comes to equal pay. They're living their lives on the ground when it comes to borrowing to send their kids to college, when it comes to meeting mortgage payments and paying their utilities. I'm running for the United States Senate to represent the interests of those people leading their lives on the ground in Baltimore, and all across this country, because I've walked in their shoes. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Doreen St. Félix is Lenny's editor at large.

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