Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of candidates hoping to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Next week: Donna Edwards.
Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Monday said he can make a “positive difference” for Marylanders if they elect him to the U.S. Senate.
“I’ve been focused on issues that I know people care about, not just in the 8th Congressional District, but in our great state,” Van Hollen told the Washington Blade during an interview at a coffee shop near Capitol Hill.
Shortly after U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced her retirement from the U.S. Senate last March, Van Hollen declared his candidacy to fill her seat. He will face Rep. Donna Edwards in the April 26 Democratic primary.
Chrysovalantis Kefalas, a gay Republican who was former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s legal counsel, in December declared his candidacy for Mikulski’s seat. State Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford Counties), Anthony Seda and Richard Douglas will face off against Kefalas for the GOP nomination.
Van Hollen during the interview repeatedly referred to Mikulski.
He said she is someone “who understood that Maryland is only strong when all parts of Maryland are strong.” Van Hollen also described Mikulski as “somebody who’s impatient to get things done and is very focused on delivering results on the ground.”
“That’s always been my philosophy as well,” said Van Hollen.
‘Proud to lead the fight’ for Md. anti-discrimination law
Van Hollen was a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from 1991-1995. He served in the Maryland Senate from 1995 until he became a member of Congress in 2003.
Van Hollen said that advancing LGBT-specific issues was “a priority of mine” in the Maryland General Assembly.
He said he was “proud to lead the fight” on the floor of the state Senate in 2001 in support of a bill that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in Maryland. Van Hollen in 2012 donated more than $20,000 to Marylanders for Marriage Equality, a coalition of organizations that urged voters to support the state’s same-sex marriage law.
Maryland voters that year upheld the statute in a referendum.
“We are really pleased that Maryland was first that night as an East Coast state,” said Van Hollen.
Van Hollen is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which would amend federal civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
He acknowledged the measure has little chance of passing in this Congress. Van Hollen nevertheless said that he and other supporters need to continue their efforts in support of it.
“It will only pass if we keep pressing the case, whether it’s this Congress or a future Congress,” said Van Hollen.
Van Hollen — who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2006-2010 — noted Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
He said the Democrats have a “very realistic shot” of regaining control of the U.S. Senate in the upcoming election. Van Hollen told the Blade his party needs to “keep the pressure on in the House.”
“If you’re not pushing hard for change, change will never come,” he said. “If you haven’t organized around a specific proposal, you’re starting from way behind. So putting forward the Equality Act, pushing for it every day will hasten the day when that will become the law of the land.”
Van Hollen also noted education, college affordability and “this growing and very real concern that people are working harder than ever but their wages are flat” are among the top issues for his constituents. He also cited criminal justice reform as important.
“These issues really are important across our district,” said Van Hollen.
O’Malley ran ‘positive’ campaign
Van Hollen has endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“Both her experience and her record make her most qualified to be the president, commander-in-chief,” said Van Hollen. “I don’t agree with her on everything. There are areas where on the issues I may be closer to (U.S. Sen.) Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or (former Maryland Gov.) Martin O’Malley.”
“I do think when you look at the whole record that she’s been a leader and would be a good president,” added Van Hollen.
Van Hollen spoke with the Blade on the same day as the Iowa caucuses. O’Malley suspended his campaign hours after the interview.
“He’s run a positive campaign on the issues,” said Van Hollen, praising O’Malley’s performance at the last town hall with Clinton and Sanders. “I’m glad we have multiple voices in the primary process at this stage. I think that strengthens all the candidates.”
Van Hollen also discussed O’Malley’s record on LGBT-specific issues as governor, noting he signed the state’s same-sex marriage and transgender rights laws.
“He was certainly part of that effort,” said Van Hollen. “I don’t know how to allocate credit, so to speak. There were a lot of people involved.”
Van Hollen criticized Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other Republican presidential candidates who have highlighted their opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples on the campaign trail. He also expressed concern that a Republican president could repeal President Obama’s executive order that bans federal contractors from discriminating against their LGBT employees.
“They could do that with the stroke of a pen,” said Van Hollen. “The stakes are very, very high.”
Van Hollen told the Blade that Democrats would also “fight tooth and nail against any effort to roll back the existing rights and protections” that are now in place for LGBT Americans. These include religious freedom bills that critics contend would allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“If Republicans keep control of the House and they maintain control of the Senate and they were to win the White House, which we’re all fighting hard against, they could have the power,” said Van Hollen. “We do have the filibuster. These are things you don’t want to mess around with.”
Van Hollen, Edwards in tight race
A poll that Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies released on Jan. 19 showed Van Hollen was ahead of Edwards by a 38-36 percent margin. The survey has a 5.8 percent margin of error.
State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), state Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and former state Del. Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery County) are among the current and former Maryland officials who have endorsed Van Hollen’s U.S. Senate campaign.
Madaleno told the Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview that Van Hollen “was a leader on civil rights” for LGBT Marylanders in the General Assembly. The gay Montgomery County Democrat said Van Hollen’s donation to the campaign in support of the state’s same-sex marriage law came at a time when “it had felt that we were dead in the water from a fundraising perspective.”
“Here was this guy who was a rising star in national politics and he was willing to put his name on the line to pass this referendum,” said Madaleno. “That opened a lot of people’s checkbooks.”
Former Marylanders for Marriage Equality President Ezekiel Jackson also supports Van Hollen’s Senate campaign.
“Chris is my choice,” Jackson told the Blade on Tuesday. “Chris was always very good in responding to us.”