I'm going to tell you right now it's a tough challenge, but a lot of things are tough. Tougher than the challenge of taking down an incumbent is the challenge of getting up every day and struggling with how you're going to meet your mortgage or your rent, or take care of your children and your parents as they age, and see that you get health care, and have an environment that means we have clean air to breathe, and we leave the earth in a better condition than when we found it. Those challenges are far greater than taking on an incumbent.
-- Donna Edwards, Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District in Maryland
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The Netroots has been gathering steam for years in trying to integrate online advocacy, on the ground get-out-the-vote efforts, Internet organizing, and progressive content to elect a new generation of liberal candidates who are not beholden to insider D.C. corporate politics. This spring in the Maryland primary, those efforts came together in a dramatic way (and there have been previous successes). In a 65% to 30% trouncing in the Democratic primary, Donna Edwards beat out the incumbent, Congressman Mel Wynn, for the right to represent Maryland's 4th Congressional District. Edwards still needs to officially win the seat in November, but this is considered a no-lose Democratic district.
Edwards is an attorney who has spent recent years as a tireless progressive advocate. Wynn represented establishment politics at its worst, including being one of only four black members of Congress to vote for the Iraq War.
When interviewed, Edwards won us over with her infectious enthusiasm. That may explain -- along with the growth of a now integrated progressive support system on the Internet combined with good on-the-ground organization -- why she will become the first African-American woman from Maryland to serve in Congress.
It is rare to beat a Congressional incumbent, but the times are a changing, as Edwards has proved. Democrats who insist on being RepubliCrats should take notice. Donna Edwards is coming to town.
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BuzzFlash: First of all, congratulations on your primary victory, and we assume it will be a victory in the general election. We wanted to talk with you because you're a real role model of the progressive candidate winning. You are an unusual case especially since you succeeded in knocking out an incumbent. Winning against incumbents running for reelection to Congress is rare, let alone winning against them in primaries. You are now the Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District in Maryland. Can you tell us a little bit about why you thought this was important, and why you willingly took on an incumbent?
Donna Edwards: I didn't think so much about him being an incumbent, but I thought about him not really representing the interests of our district. This is Congressman Al Wynn, who has represented the 4th Congressional District for eight terms. At the time I took him on in 2006, I thought it was important because I had paid attention to his record. I talked a lot to my friends and neighbors throughout the district, and I just really didn't feel that he fairly represented our views on Capitol Hill. And particularly it was his positioning and supporting the authorization to go to war in Iraq, and supporting a bankruptcy bill that was actually was just a boondoggle for banks and credit card companies against the interest of consumers. Another issue was his voting to give tax breaks to oil and gas companies.
I just thought: Somebody must stand up to this. And I looked around. It wasn't a natural for me to just run for office. I'd never run for elective office before. I joke with people and tell them the last time I did that, I was in 11th grade, running for class president. And I won, but that's not a political career.
So I talked to a number of people who didn't want to take him on for exactly the reasons you described -- because it's tough. It's tough to raise money. It makes it tough to beat an incumbent. A lot of people who hold political office, even if they felt the way I did, backed off from it. I just decided I was going to run, and I'm glad I did it.
BuzzFlash: You've had a varied and successful career. You've worked for Lockheed Corporation in the Goddard Space Flight Program, and you're an attorney. Right now, you're working as head of a foundation. You've been an activist all along, a public citizen. In 2006, you just barely lost your challenge in the primary -- by a fraction of a percentage point. But in the last election, you handily beat your opponent, 60 to 35 percent. What happened in those two years that made such a difference?
Donna Edwards: Part of what happened is that I had much higher name recognition. We put together an excellent campaign team that could raise the funds it takes to beat a longtime incumbent, but also, people working on the ground and in the field, and others who could do media, who could reach out on the Internet. We put together a great team that was committed to turning what was a terrific grassroots effort in 2006 into a victory in 2008.
And we remained committed, knocking on doors, making telephone calls, directly contacting voters. Ultimately that's the real story here. It's the story of progressive activism and organization -- returning to that kind of old-style campaigning where you actually meet, greet and talk to ordinary people and the regular voters. And they responded.
BuzzFlash: On BuzzFlash, we don't raise money for candidates. We're a news site. But many progressive websites do raise money - Act Blue, DFA and so forth. What role did the net roots have in your campaign?
Donna Edwards: It was a tremendous positive influence on the campaign at two levels. Number one was creating a national conversation about this Congressional district, this race, and about progressive public policy and what that means. We were able to successfully use the whole Internet community to engage in that conversation. I had small donors giving $2, $4, $10 contributions to the campaign from across the country. People really stepped up because they wanted to see our progressive ideas and policies result in a victory in the 4th Congressional District.
We also have the support of a lot of organizations, from environmental groups led by the League of Conservation Voters, Air Club, Friends of the Earth, women's organizations, the National Organization for Women, and Emily's List, and Women's Campaign Forum, and Women's Action for New Directions. We had the support of a lot of progressive organizations -- unions like the Service Employees International Union, and the Garment Workers, hotel workers and grocery store workers at the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. These are the people who stepped up to really support our campaign, and to organize on the Internet, but also to organize in the community. We had a broad swath of progressive activists engaged in this campaign from around the country.
BuzzFlash: We've noticed at your website that you have a great smile that shows you are not a dour politician -- and you just confirmed in our brief conversation that you're very uplifting. Obviously that had an influence on the voters. But in terms of past Congressional and state-level candidacies, the Internet had never quite translated raising of money to feet on the ground. Your campaign seems to have bridged that gap.
Donna Edwards: I think so, yes. I've especially learned this in the campaign that even if somebody's in Montana and they're making a small contribution to Donna Edwards' campaign in the 4th District in Maryland, they have invested in the campaign. That same person might know somebody in the Washington, D.C. area and forward them an electronic message and say: Have you heard about this campaign? Maybe you could go volunteer. It was amazing how many volunteers we got locally who were actually turned on to the campaign by somebody who doesn't live anywhere near here.
And I was helped by the organizations that really have the ground capacity. Democracy for America, for instance -- those folks were really invested in the campaign in a deep way. We also paid a lot of attention to communicating with people inside and outside of the Congressional district in different ways, using YouTube and producing our own video spots and getting them out there. I'd get on the blogs and just do some blogging sessions about a range of different issues. We tried to figure out how to use the activism that's out there.
BuzzFlash: Now you are heavily favored to win in the general election. There's probably a better chance of me winning "Dancing with the Stars" than you losing the election in November. So we'll call you the presumptive Congresswoman-elect. Will you be able to drive to work from your district?
Donna Edwards: Yes. I'm really excited about that because it gives me an opportunity to represent the district in a way that's very different from members who have to spend some time in Washington, and then fly out to their districts. This is a great setup for me. I'll be able to go home to my own home every single night. I won't lose touch with my community, because I live in it. We're going to have a different style of representation here in this Congressional district.
It also affords me the opportunity to really engage folks in town hall meetings in person, in virtual town hall meetings, in civic association meetings -- all the kinds of things you can lose sight of if you're traveling from districts that are quite a distance from Washington.
BuzzFlash: We should explain that your district is immediately adjacent to Washington, D.C.
Donna Edwards: It's actually stands somewhat like a half-moon around the District of Columbia. And it's quite a diverse district in terms of income and race and religion. We have a huge number of people who have been in the federal bureaucracy. It's amazing the depth of knowledge they have about how some of these government agencies work, and why they don't work sometimes. I'll be able to draw on all of that.
BuzzFlash: Looking at your platform, you're very clearly a progressive, and we're a progressive news site. We see things through a progressive filter, and we have been trying to sort out what is the soul of the Democratic Party. In a way, your primary contest was like a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Is the soul going to be a corporate kind of moderate-to-conservative Democrat? Or is it going to be progressive? Did you convince the people of your district to become progressive, or did they just need to know there was someone there they could vote for?
Donna Edwards: I think it's the latter. I was able to talk about the things that concern them every day, which, after all, are my concerns, too. I have an eighteen-year-old who's in college, and I'm struggling to try to make sure I'll be able to pay that tuition and meet that mortgage, and pay for the gas that it takes me to commute back and forth to work, and I'm frustrated that I don't have the kind of public transportation that I need. These are all issues that are of concern to everyday people.
What I hope to bring to policymaking is a sense that I've lived your life. I haven't forgotten that, by any stretch of the imagination. So what we were able to do through this campaign is to just give voice to people's life experience. That voice is not a life experience that says that our public policy needs to be geared toward corporate special interests. I'm very, very excited about that.
BuzzFlash: The sitting Representative, Congressman Wynn, who you opposed, supported the repeal of the estate tax. He voted originally for the Iraq war. He supported the bankruptcy bill. These were all things that potentially would affect people in your district in a negative way.
Donna Edwards: That's right. We were able to highlight the Congressman's voting record, and we would just put it to people and say: Knowing what you now know, is this the vote you would want to cast? Or do you want to go with an alternative? People chose the alternative, and they chose me. I'm humbled by that and excited by that, but it highlights for me that, as progressives, we need to call attention to these voting records. We can't let any of these votes be forgotten.
Here in the metropolitan Washington area, the media focus tends to be on the national news. Nobody wrote about the fact that the Congressman had voted for the war, and for the bankruptcy bill, or to give tax breaks to oil and gas companies, or to repeal the estate tax. So who knew, until we told them? And when they knew, they were able to make an informed decision about a choice. That's what I think our progressive allies around the country need to spend a little bit of time on letting people know.
BuzzFlash: Before we finish up, I want to commend you for having been a tremendous activist, but particularly for your work in founding and serving as executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and you also helped to pass the Violence Against Women Act -- two very much needed advocacy efforts, and your life's sort of been devoted to that area. It's a great asset to the nation that you'll be in Congress.
But let me close by asking you this: What do you say to a person who is contemplating taking on a conservative incumbent who is beholden to corporate interests, but who some might say is impossible to knock off as an incumbent. This is just not going to happen -- they have name recognition, the perks the incumbent has in getting people on their side -- it's just too formidable for me to take on. What would you say to that person since you succeeded at it?
Donna Edwards: There will always be the naysayers and the list of reasons why not. I think a person has to kind of reach into themselves and know that it's going to be a tough and arduous process, and do their homework, and pull together a team that's not going to leave them standing out there on their own.
Collectively, we need to think about how we can provide support for that person. That support might come in the form of a small contribution, but it also might come in the form of volunteering. It might come in the form of knocking on a door or making a telephone call, or beating back the naysayers. I would say people shouldn't be daunted about the prospect of a challenge.
I'm going to tell you right now it's a tough challenge, but a lot of things are tough. Tougher than the challenge of taking down an incumbent is the challenge of getting up every day and struggling with how you're going to meet your mortgage or your rent, or take care of your children and your parents as they age, and see that you get health care, and have an environment that means we have clean air to breathe, and we leave the earth in a better condition than when we found it. Those challenges are far greater than taking on an incumbent. As we put things in perspective, I believe that people really will step up to the plate.
BuzzFlash: And that tenacity is important. You seem to have boundless energy, but you lost the first time, and some people would give up after that. It was a squeaker, but you lost in the first attempt, in the 2006 primary, but you came back this year and won by what can only be described as a landslide.
Donna Edwards: It just proves that the second time is a charm.
BuzzFlash: Well, congratulations and best of luck to you.
Donna Edwards: Thank you very much.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW