Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profiles of candidates hoping to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
LANHAM, Md. — Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards says that she would be a “voice” for people of color and other underrepresented groups in the U.S. Senate if she were elected.
“It’s exactly those communities: Workers, women and children who need a voice in the United States Senate,” Edwards told the Washington Blade during an interview in her Prince George’s County campaign office on Feb. 1. “I will be that voice for them.”
Shortly after U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced her retirement from the U.S. Senate last March, Edwards declared her candidacy to fill the seat. She will face off against Congressman Chris Van Hollen in the April 26 Democratic primary.
Chrysovalantis Kefalas, a gay Republican who was former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s legal counsel, late last year declared his candidacy for the Mikulski seat. State Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford Counties), Anthony Seda and Richard Douglas will face off against Kefalas in the GOP primary.
Edwards told the Blade that Mikulski’s retirement announcement “really caught us all by surprise.”
“I thought that I could offer a really different kind of voice in the United States Senate that would respect and live up to the legacy that Sen. Mikulski has left, but also add to that legacy,” said Edwards.
Pastors support congresswoman, despite marriage support
Edwards was the first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which worked to secure passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
She later worked at Public Citizen and the Center for a New Democracy before becoming the executive director of the Arca Foundation in 2000. Edwards has represented Maryland’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since she won a special election to succeed Albert Wynn in 2008.
Edwards pointed out to the Blade that she was the first member of the Maryland congressional delegation to publicly back marriage rights for same-sex couples, but the Van Hollen campaign disputes this claim. Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes in 2007 expressed his support for nuptials for gays and lesbians during an interview on “The Marc Steiner Show.”
Edwards publicly spoke in support of Maryland’s same-sex marriage law that then-Gov. Martin O’Malley signed in 2012. Voters in the same year upheld the statute in a referendum.
“It’s from my fundamental value system, which is that you can’t have different categories of equality,” Edwards told the Blade. “Whenever inequality pops up, you have to smack back at it.”
Edwards, who is a congregant at Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington, acknowledged to the Blade that her pastor “completely disagrees with my views on marriage equality.”
She said that he nevertheless supports her “overwhelmingly anyway” because she “was straight forward with them and that I didn’t dance around the issues.” Edwards told the Blade that she also met with other pastors in her district before her 2008 election to explain her position on LGBT-specific issues.
“It’s hard to concede that you get elected without the support of those pastors and those communities,” she said. “I looked at them and I said to them I could give you an answer that kind of dances around things, but I’m going to tell you that I support equality wherever there is inequality.”
Edwards said she asked the pastors whether they would want the government to interfere with the operation of their respective churches. She told the Blade that their “universal answer was no.”
“Then I said, ‘and so when government has to be about the business of making sure that there is equal treatment of all of our citizens, no matter their gender, no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter their sexual orientation, why would you as pastors want to meddle in what the government does,’” said Edwards. “That is the last conversation that I ever had with pastors about that.”
She has also taken part in Baltimore Pride and attended events for Equality Maryland, a statewide LGBT advocacy group that will merge with FreeState Legal later this year. Edwards is also a co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which would amend federal civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Freddie Gray case raises ‘multiple fold’ issues
Shortly after she took office, Edwards secured funding that allowed Maryland to join a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides dinner to low-income students. The congresswoman last year introduced a bill that would allow state and federal prisoners to once again become eligible for Pell grants.
“It was my experience of visiting jails and prisons that led me to that,” said Edwards.
Edwards also discussed Freddie Gray’s death last April from injuries he suffered while in police custody.
She told the Blade that the case highlights the need to reduce unemployment rates among Baltimoreans of color, rebuild infrastructure and expand skills training. Edwards added Gray’s death also underscores the need to extend resources to law enforcement agencies “to do the kind of ongoing training and competency development that’s necessary for law enforcement to interact with communities in a responsible way.”
Edwards said that she will also work with Baltimore’s next mayor to “begin to deliver” results on housing, increased federal funding to tackle poverty and other issues.
“These are issues that are multiple fold,” she told the Blade.
Van Hollen outraised Edwards by 10-to-1
Edwards’ latest campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission indicates she had $299,459.68 in the bank at the end of 2015. This figure compares to the $3,663,652 that Van Hollen had during the same period.
A poll that Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies released last month shows Van Hollen ahead of Edwards by a 38-36 percent margin. The survey has a 5.8 percent margin of error.
“It’s a sprint right up until Election Day,” Edwards told the Blade.
Edwards’ LGBT supporters with whom the Blade spoke said they are confident that the congresswoman will be an effective member of the U.S. Senate.
“LGBT issues are sort of based on equity and justice,” said Kathleen Maloy of Chevy Chase on Tuesday during a telephone interview. “Donna has stood for that her whole life.”
Rev. Merrick Moise, an LGBT rights advocate in Baltimore, agreed.
Moise told the Blade on Tuesday that Edwards is “unequivocal in her support of the community.” He said the congresswoman also “understands the plight of everyday Marylanders.”
“She absolutely has a chance because she has the support of grassroots folks,” Moise told the Blade, referring to Edwards’ campaign. “She is uniquely positioned as an African-American woman who has advocated for a whole host of issues.”