We're smack dang in the midst of primary season and I've been thinking a lot about the role primaries can play for committed progressives. It's pretty much the only time we have to hold the feet of wayward Democratic elected officials' feet to the fire and make them defend their activities of the last couple of years. I was buoyed by Marcy Winograd's heroic run against self-described "best Republican in the Democratic Party" Jane Harman in Los Angeles and I'm excited about the seeds that have been planted there in CA-36. And of course, people even beyond the boundaries of Connecticut are very keen on Ned Lamont's muscular challenge to George Bush's favorite Democratic, Joe Lieberman. In two days progressive grassroots activist Donna Edwards will announce her challenge to one of Congress' most wayward Democrats, Al Wynn.
Maryland's 4th congressional district is just east of DC, stretching from north of Germantown down past Hillcrest Heights. People think of the district as Prince George's County, although it also contains a hefty chunk of Montgomery County. It's a majority African-American district and is one of the bluest districts in the entire country. Even though it is fairly affluent by national standards, Bush still only drew 21% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004. Al Wynn has been the congressman since 1992 and he wins by margins nearly as lopsided as Gore and Kerry did.
Although overall his voting record indicates a garden variety moderate Democrat, all too often when Wynn has had to choose between Business interests and the interests of consumers and workers, he comes down firmly on the side of Big Business, especially if we're talking about the kinds of big businesses that are generous with campaign contributions. Wynn's record of consistent support for corporations is out of line with most Democrats in the House. He often votes with the Republicans on issues effecting energy industries and was one of the disgraceful batch of Democrats that joined the GOP to vote yes on the odious and blatantly unfair bankruptcy bill and FOR repealing the Estate Tax. He was also the lead Democrat in trying to gut the Shays-Meehan bill banning soft money from politics and was one of the minority of Democrats in the House who supported Bush's unjustified attack on Iraq.
In short, Wynn is a business-friendly hack with the kind of sketchy voting record you could expect from a Democrat in a red-leaning or toss-up district. His district has more government employees than any congressional district in the entire country. He never has to fear being displaced by a Republican. What he does have to fear, on September 12, is being displaced by a progressive Democrat.
Donna Edwards officially launches her campaign Thursday (June 15). In a message to residents of the 4th CD she explained why she is running against Wynn:
Some people will ask, why run against an incumbent Democrat in a Democratic district? The answer is simple. Our current representative in Congress consistently votes against the interests of ordinary Americans, casting his lot with Bush and the Republicans on such critical issues as Iraq, the industry lobbyist-written energy bill, and the bankruptcy bill.
My record is one of leadership on these issues. I listen to people, not special interests. And in Congress, I will work tirelessly for the common good.
Record? She has a record? She sure does! After realizing her career dreams lay in the direction of public interest advocacy, she co-founded and served as the first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, giving battered women legal and political support they had lacked as a class. She helped pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, providing comprehensive funding for shelter and services for victims of domestic violence and their children, something that has been targeted for extinction by Bush and his rubber-stamp Congress. She has been very active in citizen-initiated efforts to reform the grotesquely anti-democratic campaign finance system and lobbying laws, first with Public Citizen and then as the executive director for the Center for a New Democracy. Since 2000 she's been the executive director of the Arca Foundation and she's made a great reputation for herself working with grassroots groups to support living wage campaigns, to reinforce the importance of an independent judiciary, on protecting Social Security and supporting labor and human rights internationally (the only way to guarantee that so-called "free trade" is also "fair trade").
When it comes to Wynn, who Donna supported in 1992 when he first ran, she explains her disappointment. He "was one of only a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus to support the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq as well as all subsequent spending. He has led efforts to bring casinos to the district. He voted for the Republican energy bill, to weaken the Endangered Species Act, drill for oil in Alaska's protected land, and give billions of dollars in tax breaks to the oil and gas companies. He sided with the Republicans and the pharmaceutical companies on drug policy, the credit card companies on the bankruptcy bill, and just recently, he joined the telecommunications industry in supporting privatizing the Internet. The money his campaign has received reveals these new alliances. We haven't left Albert Wynn; he's left us."
When I spoke with Donna a couple of days ago she told me that for her to win against an entrenched incumbent like Wynn, voters have to see her as authentic and as someone who wants to represent their interests in a meaningful way. She's lived and worked in the district for 25 years and has put together a potent grassroots network of people in the district who are not content with the current leadership and who have diverse interests, from the war to the environment to transportation, development and economic issues. "Al's changed substantially since he's gotten into Congress-- and not for the better for this district." She says he was a decent state senator and had been open to listening to people, Now, for everyone I talk to familiar with Prince George's County, all I hear is that Al is a boss who gives orders and that he is deaf to the people in the district. That's certainly reflected in his voting record. Donna says there is "no level of accountability" and that she wants "Al Wynn to run on his record because his record is deplorable."
If you already understand why progressives are so heartily in favor of Ned Lamont's primary campaign against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, you will have no trouble in understanding why progressives need to get behind Donna's campaign. When he last reported, Wynn had $377,919 on hand. Unlike most Democrats, his PAC contributions came overwhelmingly-- and not surprisingly-- from Business (79%) rather than Labor (20%)-- a disparity that has grown markedly since he was first elected. His stance against net neutrality has guaranteed that the big telecoms will continue to fund his career and his pro-corporate activities on behalf of the energy and pharmaceutical companies will keep the "contributions" rolling in. To combat that, Donna has people interested in good government, like us. Most of us don't write $2,000 checks... but there are a lot more of us than there are of them. In a race like this, small contributions, if made by enough people, will give Donna a chance to get her message out to Maryland residents, many of whom have no idea that their Democratic congressman votes with Republicans again and again and again.
She is on track to topping the $200,000 goal she set for herself by the end of this month. Unlike most grassroots candidates I've talked with, she has taken a leave of absense from her job so that she can run a full-time campaign. Talking about Marcy Winograd's valient campaign against Jane Harman, Donna says it took "a lot of courage and that Marcy was one of only a few around the country." She believes that progressives can successfully challenge incumbents like Wynn and that what voters are craving are "clarity and authenticity and not double-talk."
An old friend of mine who lives in Prince George's County is excited about the campaign. He phoned me today and told me that "everybody has Joe Lieberman; I have Al Wynn." And now he has Donna Edwards-- and hope.
Today there's a $1,000 matching fund for ACT BLUE contributions to Donna's campaign over at Down With Tyranny. On top of that, the first 10 donors get autographed copies of David Sirota's brilliant new book, HOSTILE TAKE OVER, a book which goes a long way towards explaining why we have legislators like Wynn and why we need to support progressives like Donna when they challenge them.