While the civil war on the Republican side of the aisle is garnering the most attention this cycle, the bayonets are out in the Democratic Party, too—particularly in the Maryland primary.
When the state’s voters come out on Tuesday to choose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they’ll also be making a choice about who will replace the longest-serving female member of Congress in United States history, Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Unlike the routine tug of war Democrats get into every four years over whether to be more like Denmark or more like the status quo, the Senate battle between Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen is a slugfest dripping with accusations of sexism and racism.
See, Van Hollen’s a white boy. That was evident when I followed him as he went on an awkward tour of Baltimore’s black barbershops on Saturday. Wearing a wrinkled sport coat from the car trip he’d obviously taken that morning from the predominantly white suburbs of Washington, the seven-term congressman stood out like, well, a clunky white politician pandering for votes in gritty Northeast Baltimore.
He popped in and out of local barbershops and nail salons on iconic Monument Street, as he avoided crushed beer cans under foot and passed within inches of a dead rat that still seemed to be clawing at the sky.
The Senate candidate—who is moderate, or at least an “establishment” deal maker, and by most accounts has had to tack left in the primary, like Clinton, on issues like trade policy—was most at ease when discussing Maryland sports.
“That’s a dangerous hat to wear around here,” Van Hollen adlibbed when introduced to an older African-American man rocking a Carolina Panthers cap. But Van Hollen wasn’t running the show on Saturday. His surrogates were.
“He’s a good brother,” the leader of the adventure, Mark Hunter, reassured a young female who was dubious of the politician trying to run up on her weekend errands. Then Hunter threw his first uppercut toward Van Hollen’s opponent, Donna Edwards: “Who else you seen in the neighborhood?”
Hunter’s a tall, bald yet youthful black man who runs a commercial cleaning business. He also seemed to know everyone on the block. And he wasn’t afraid to take a page from the playbook of old Maryland machine politics, as he gave a business card (and a job offer) to one voter who said he was fed up with politicians like Van Hollen coming to Baltimore and promising to bring jobs with them.
When Baltimore burned last year after Freddie Gray’s murder at the hands of police, the city gave a collective middle finger to establishment politicians. Ironically, or sadly, now the debate over who will represent B-more, or Charm City, in the U.S. Senate is revolving around who is more establishment.
Van Hollen, like Clinton, is more establishment than his opponent. But the angry youth who burned and looted parts of an already beleaguered Baltimore aren’t likely to sway this election. The establishment seems to be running the joint.
“I want somebody that can bring the bacon home,” the Majority Whip of the Maryland House of Delegates, Talmadge Branch, told The Daily Beast. In a maroon sport coat and a short, tight ponytail, the energetic and confident black man was about as opposite of the soft-spoken (when not on cable news …), even sheepish, Van Hollen as you can get, yet he supports him vigorously.
Branch served with the candidate in the state House before mostly white voters sent Van Hollen to represent them in Washington. He maintains the state needs cash flow from Washington, and that Van Hollen knows how to slow-cook that particular bacon. “That’s what keeps the economy here in Maryland flowing, having elected officials that can deliver.”
Van Hollen knows this too. After running the campaign arm for House Democrats—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—he was elevated to being one of the main attack dogs for the party. With the formidable numbers wonk Paul Ryan serving as Budget Committee Chairman for the GOP, Nancy Pelosi tapped Van Hollen to be the top Democrat on the committee, making him the party’s de facto spokesman on numbers and values.
Even as his opponent has accused him of being in bed with the Washington establishment and too willing to cave on Democratic, i.e. progressive, values, like trade policy and the social safety net, Van Hollen maintained he’s proud of his record of compromising (or, as some say, deal making) in D.C.
“You’re talking about two members of Congress who are running—right? Been here a long time. So this isn’t an insider/outsider sort of thing,” Van Hollen tried to reassure The Daily Beast outside an abandoned laundromat. “People are hungering for solutions, they’re not looking for sound bites and they’re also looking for people with a record of working with others, building coalitions to actually get things done.”
That other member of the House trying to attain new and highly coveted Senate digs is Donna Edwards—a five-term congresswoman who is an African American. Her unspoken pitch to voters is that she’s, well, black.
“Black power,” yelled a female voice over the loudspeakers at a get-out-the-vote event for Edwards at Baltimore’s historically black Coppin State University late Saturday afternoon. Edwards shook hands at the sparsely attended event and seemed blissfully unaware that the young, wannabe hip-hop artist from the #BlackLivesMatter vein of the political spectrum was raging against the Democratic machine that Edwards is a part of.
Edwards is also proudly running as a female. Her single-mother narrative has netted her some $2.4 million from the pro-woman group Emily’s List (though after this contest many Democrats are calling it an anti-man group). For the progressive Edwards, race and gender are key to the race and she’s shocked the Democratic establishment hasn’t rallied around her and the identity politics she embodies.
“What I’m surprised about is that there are Democrats who are calling into question whether we should have the most diverse and inclusionary representation in the United Senate, and I thought that was a no-brainer for Democrats,” Edwards told The Daily Beast.
The congresswoman, who represents the most affluent African-American population in the nation, from the suburbs of D.C., seems perplexed the Democratic Party establishment seems to be stacking the deck for Van Hollen in the race to replace Mikulski. The five-term senator was a feisty pioneer and the first female elected to the upper chamber of Congress without an appointment or riding the coattails of a deceased husband or father.
“I thought that for us, as Democrats, we say we’re a party of diversity and inclusion, we believe that it’s important for all voices to be at the table,” a visibly annoyed Edwards said. “I’m making a very compelling argument that, all things being equal, we know that they are not equal and it’s time to have the voice of an African-American woman who is highly qualified to be in the United Sates Senate.”
When The Daily Beast inquired about the purported sexist and racial contours of Van Hollen’s campaign, she demurred. That’s what surrogates are for. According to one of the four (out of 46!) members of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse Edwards, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), “sexist, racist—the nexus of racism and sexism, up to and including internalized racism” have defined the race.
Moore, a member of the Democratic establishment in her own right, is burning bridges with her Edwards’s endorsement. She’s also hitting the pavement for her friend. She served under Van Hollen as a member of the Budget Committee. “He’s been handed his portfolio…that’s put him in the position to appear to be qualified—he’s a golden child of Maryland,” Moore said at the get-out-the-vote event at Coppin as loud hip-hop bass washed over us.
Moore is a Hillary Clinton backer, but she contends Edwards is more in line with Bernie Sanders’s progressive message. “Donna, yes, carries that message, of inequality. She is a staunch supporter of Social Security—she’s not going to be negotiating it away,” Moore said while adding that Van Hollen would allegedly rip that social safety net away if presented with the right deal.
While many voters in Maryland will surely agree with Emily’s List and vote a straight Hillary-Edwards ticket, many others think Hillary and Van Hollen are cut from the same cloth—two white insiders from white, and predominantly male, Washington circles.
“I think they support the big corporations, they don’t look out for the little people,” Wendy Foy told The Daily Beast. She’s a resident of west Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was raised. “They don’t look out for the little people,” Foy said of Van Hollen and Clinton. “We’re the ones that vote for them. We’re the ones that put them in office and once they’re there they forget about us.”