Hoping for a New York-style victory inspired by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), two women of color are vying to oust the second-most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives.
With 10 months to go before the Maryland primary elections, Mckayla Wilkes and Briana Urbina recently announced their campaigns against District 5 Rep. Steny H. Hoyer – the House majority leader.
If either woman emerges victorious in the Democratic primary, not only will it mean that Hoyer will have to give up the seat that he has held for nearly 40 years, but he would do so to make room for the district’s first representative of color.
Both challengers say they take inspiration from Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted then-Rep. Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, in the primary last year. She won with a grass-roots campaign and by articulating views that were considerably to the left of the liberal incumbent’s record.
Hoyer, 80, seems as formidable right now as Crowley did at the beginning of the 2018 election cycle – if not more so.
He has been a fixture in Maryland politics since the mid-1960’s. He is a well-known and ubiquitous presence in the 5th District, which takes in all of Southern Maryland, about half of Prince George’s County, and a sliver of Anne Arundel County. He had a robust $827,000 in his campaign account as of March 31.
Wilkes had $5,600 in the bank at the time; Urbina had not begun raising money.
Can two inexperienced candidates stand a chance considering the support and recognition Hoyer has built throughout his successful tenure? And do they run the risk of canceling each other out in the primary?
Both Wilkes and Urbina said they hear from voters who feel disconnected from Hoyer.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to…they have been calling his office for years and they cannot get any kind of response from him. I can’t tell you how many people feel like he [has] forgotten about us,” Wilkes said.
Urbina said some voters have told her that they have been shown “disdain and disrespect” by Hoyer and feel “isolated” by his connection to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. She argued that the voices of the “vibrant and beautiful” communities in the district have not been elevated – something she vows to do.
“He can’t serve in Congress forever,” said Urbina, who acknowledged that Hoyer has done some good things that she wants to build on. “It’s time for him to step aside and allow, for the good of the party and for the good of the people of Maryland, allow for a new voice and leadership to take us…to the next place.”
As a longtime leader in the House Democratic Caucus, Hoyer has not been able to escape controversy. In April 2018, a secret recording was released in which he is heard discouraging a candidate from running for a Colorado congressional seat because he would be going up against the preferred candidate of national Democratic leaders.
And while Hoyer has been known for his generally liberal views, he has faced criticism for his opposition to Medicare-for-All.
In fact, a protest was organized outside of Hoyer’s annual birthday “Bull Roast” in Mitchellville in mid-June, targeting his stance on Medicare for All. Several organizations, including National Nurses United, Healthcare is a Human Right Maryland, Progressive Democrats, Progressive Maryland and Progressive Healthcare Coalition jointly planned this action to call attention to the single-payer health care proposal as nearly 500 guests arrived at the birthday bash.
In a brief interview with Maryland Matters recently, Hoyer, who has held the seat since winning a special election in 1981, said he is taking nothing for granted.
“I take all of my primary challenges seriously,” he said. “I think if you start to ignore your community and alternatives that are seeking to represent them, you’re on the road to losing. I think it’s important for me to convey to my constituents what I’ve done, what I want to keep doing, and why I think it is worthwhile to re-elect me, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
The midterm elections brought a surge of women’s empowerment. For voters skeptical of Hoyer and looking for a change, will the unconventional campaigns of Wilkes and Urbina provide inspiration? Will the fact that Maryland has an all-male congressional delegation become a factor in the race?
Here is a look at the two women looking to take on Hoyer:
Wilkes is a mother of two children and a college student, who calls herself a victim of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform is one of the top issues she’s discussing on the campaign trail, along with affordable housing, health care and the Green New Deal. A resident of Waldorf, she turns 29 on the Fourth of July.
Wilkes was incarcerated in 2014 after driving with a suspended license, and she chose to spend two days in jail because she could not afford to pay $1,000 in fines. She said she was financially unstable at the time and could not pay her tickets—she said she does not remember what they were for—or court fees, resulting in a suspended license. But she had to continue driving to get to her job to provide for her son.
“I’ve been incarcerated for basically being poor, for being impoverished,” Wilkes said. “I’ve not been incarcerated because, you know, I had done anything really bad…I could not afford to pay the ticket and unfortunately our criminal justice system preys on individuals in that aspect. And I was a victim of that.”
“That’s when I just started to realize that it was a whole entire system that needed to change,” she continued. “I realized that it was just bigger than the individual.”
After initially studying psychology at Prince George’s Community College and the College of Southern Maryland, Wilkes initially dropped out to take a full-time job to take care of her son. She is now studying political science at Northern Virginia Community College.
As Wilkes gears up to knock on doors and meet voters, waging a grass-roots campaign with no political action committee contributions, she embraces her past.
It “just shows that I’m a regular person with regular issues,” she said. “I am the people of this district, you know, the majority of us don’t have, you know, this strong elite background.”
Compared to Ocasio-Cortez ever since she announced her campaign, Wilkes welcomes this comparison openly.
“I feel like for both AOC and I, it’s more than just about being political,” she said. “For her…it’s more than politics, but it’s about actually looking out for the people, and that is what I’m about.”
“Everything that’s on my policy platform – everything I believe in, affects me, affects my mom, my sister, my friend, my neighbor, like people I know,” Wilkes continued. “For me, it’s personal.”
By running for Congress, Wilkes said she is trying to show her 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter that, “you can be anything that you put your mind to and you can be the change.
“You don’t have to sit around and wait for someone to make a difference,” she said. “You can be that difference and it doesn’t matter what you go through in life. Who you were does not determine where you will go in life. And I’m a living testament to that.”
Wilkes currently has two traffic cases open in the Upper Marlboro District Court that date back to April. When first asked, she said she had no comment.
She followed up with a statement an hour later: “I’ve always been honest about my experiences with the criminal justice system because experiences like these made me want to run.”
“When we talk about mass incarceration and over-policing this is what we’re talking about. This is an example of how transportation policing traps working people in a cycle of infraction,” she added in a text message. “It’s crucial that we have people who’ve had these common experiences in office so we can craft truly just policies, not ones that criminalize minor lapses.”
Urbina shared a story from her days as a nonprofit worker in Washington, D.C., that she said best describes her as a candidate.
Urbina was in the middle of a legal proceeding of her client, who was 24-years-old, had four children and an IQ of 64, when she recognized that her client would not be able to follow the terms of the agreement.
“I asked her, I said, ‘Do you know what you have to do now?’ And she couldn’t restate to me. I said, ‘Listen, you have to move before this day. I’m going to get you to a social worker. They’re going to help you find an apartment. And then when they tell you that your apartment’s ready, I’m going to help you move.’”
And Urbina did just that.
She rented a U-Haul truck on her own time, packed her client’s apartment and got her settled into the new place because she did not know how to do so. She also got her a case manager to help her stay on track with paying bills.
“No one ever had to ask me to rent a U-Haul…I didn’t seek anyone’s approval to rent a U-Haul. I just did it,” Urbina said. “That is the kind of care that I will be exercising for constituents…I will go above and beyond to make sure that I take care of every single constituent.”
Urbina identifies herself as an “Afro-Latina, lesbian woman,” and says she’s the caregiver for a brother with “intellectual disabilities” and the mother of a special needs child – a former student, who she and her wife have taken in. Urbina said these identities, and the struggles she has experienced as a result of them, would enable her to be a good member of Congress.
“As a mother of a black boy, I can talk to voters about the conversations I had to have with my son about police and…safety. As a lesbian woman, I know what it is to be discriminated against for who I love,” Urbina said. “As a woman of color and Afro-Latina, I can relate to the discrimination that’s historic and brings shortages…in the district against African Americans…And, as a woman, I feel like there’s stories that aren’t being told in our current leadership that I could share from my own personal experience.”
Yet, she hopes her past and the roles she’s taken on do not alienate her from voters.
“This campaign is grounded in the identity…for the value of honesty, inclusion and family,” Urbina said. “These are things that everybody can relate to, no matter what your life experience, your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your religious affiliation, whatever.”
Urbina, a 34-year-old former special education teacher and civil rights attorney, lists her top priorities as education, civil rights, criminal justice reform and affordable housing. She lives in Greenbelt.
Like Wilkes, she is planning to canvass, knock on doors and meet people, so she can become “immersed in the community and allow them to lead me.”
“This campaign isn’t about me, it’s about us,” Wilkes said. “And my job is to use my megaphone to tell our stories.”
Bruce DePuyt contributed to this story.