Former U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards says she has no regrets about the unusually blunt remarks she delivered following her defeat in last year’s Democratic Senate primary, remarks that had some wondering whether her frustrations with her party had reached a crisis point.
Taking to the podium at her campaign headquarters after conceding to Congressman (and now Senator) Chris Van Hollen, a visibly angry Edwards castigated her party for not doing more to support non-white candidates.
“You cannot celebrate inclusion and diversity…” she said before being interrupted by 16 seconds of loud cheers and applause. “To my Democratic Party, you cannot show up in churches before Election Day, you cannot sing the first and last verse of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ you cannot join hands and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and call that post-racial and inclusion.”
She continued: “For all of us who look a little different; for all of us who talk a little different; for all of us standing on the outside propping up the Democratic Party… it is time to call the question.”
While the substance of her remarks no doubt found resonance among many African-American Democrats, the timing of her comments — at an election night event where gracious concession speeches are the norm — raised eyebrows.
But in a recent interview near her home at National Harbor, Edwards, who is attempting a political comeback in 2018, said her words and tone were intentional.
“I thought about those remarks very carefully,” she said. “I meant for them to have the effect that they did, because there’s some important soul-searching that the Democratic Party needs to do, not just here in Maryland but all across the country.”
Edwards’ Senate campaign played up the lack of the diversity in the U.S. Senate, where only a handful of non-whites have ever served.
She skipped a Democratic “unity” event held shortly after the primary (“Donna’s hurting a little bit, and you can understand why,” retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski told The Washington Post), and within months she was embarking on a 12,000-mile RV trip, by herself, through the South, Midwest and Southwest.
There’s no “wallowing in the past,” she insists. In fact, her trip, which brought her into contact with hundreds of people in RV parks and small towns (including many who recognized her from TV), made her realize how similar Americans’ anxieties are.
“The concerns that people were expressing in rural southwest Alabama or in west Texas were some of the exact same concerns that are being expressed right here in Prince George’s County… It was a life-changing experience.”
Being recognized by a man from Missouri walking his dog in an RV park “showed me the power of television,” she said. “But it also showed me the power of my voice and that I couldn’t shy away from using my voice. I’m fearless and I’m proud of that.”
Former Howard University political science professor Alvin Thornton sees nothing surprising with Edwards’ decision to speak bluntly on primary night.
“I don’t think former Congresswoman Edwards was ever in her own mind recognized and accepted by the Maryland Democratic Party. It’s not like she’s a daughter of the party. So I don’t think she felt an obligation to stay within the family.”
Now Edwards is running for Prince George’s county executive, and Thornton sees potential running room for her in the “anti-incumbency” lane, given her treatment by the party. “That gives her an advantage,” he said, while stressing it’s “too early” to handicap a race that features Edwards, State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, state Sen. C. Anthony Muse and former Obama administration official Paul Monteiro.
A poll conducted in early September, before Edwards formally announced her bid, showed Alsobrooks with a narrow 37 percent to 33 percent edge over Edwards, with Muse at 8 percent and Monteiro at 1 percent.
The poll, taken for the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable by Gonzales Research & Media Services, surveyed 407 registered Democrats from Sept. 1-7 and carried a 5-point margin of error.
Edwards says her campaign will focus on reducing class size, helping small businesses, and transparency in government, noting, “I think that we’ve had a lot of challenges around ethics (in Upper Marlboro), and it’s time we end that.”
While she is best known for her time in Congress (and her upset of then-Rep. Albert Wynn [D] in 2008), Edwards is quick to stress her time in the corporate world, at Lockheed, and her experience in the not-for-profit sector, always marching to the beat of her own drum.
“I’m the Shirley Chisholm of Prince George’s County — unbossed and unbought.”