Primary Preview: Trying to Unseat the Second Most Powerful Democrat in the House

Mckayla Wilkes. Campaign photo

It wasn’t until Mckayla Wilkes felt that she had been personally harmed by the policies supported by U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), that she considered running for his seat.

As a black woman raised in a low-income household in Maryland’s 5th District, Wilkes was in and out of juvenile detention as a teenager. At 20 years old, she was arrested for possession of marijuana. And when Wilkes was 24 years old, and pregnant, she spent a stint in jail for driving on a suspended license, the result of parking tickets she couldn’t afford to pay. 

“I was frustrated that this was our normal,” Wilkes said.

As someone who has endured single motherhood, poverty and mistreatment in the criminal justice system, she wanted representation that was in touch with the needs of people like her. 

“That’s why I decided to run for Congress — because I felt like people in our community were being left out of the conversation, so much that we thought the situations we were in were normal.”

As a 29-year-old working mother of two, Wilkes said that she represents “normal” in Maryland’s 5th congressional district. 

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, she was canvassing at local detention centers and talks openly about her criminal record as well as her abortion. As a result, Wilkes has attracted attention from some national progressive groups as an underdog seeking to upset one of the nation’s most powerful leaders. 

Wilkes says she isn’t intimidated by the incumbent. 

Hoyer has done little to help communities of color in his district, Wilkes asserted, citing his opposition to school busing in the 1970’s, his voting record on criminal justice issues, and his opposition to the Green New Deal and Medicare for all. 

“He’s voted for every single crime bill that’s ever been written,” Wilkes said. “And since then, his efforts still have not done anything to mitigate the issues and the problems that that crime bill have caused, specifically in communities of people of color and black people.”

As a young, progressive black woman, running on an platform of aggressively addressing climate change and criminal justice reform, Wilkes’ campaign has been compared to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 win against another party leader and long-time incumbent, Joe Crowley, in the Democratic primary. Wilkes says AOC’s campaign inspired her to run. 

“I think that’s why her story has garnered some national attention, because she’s a young progressive woman of color with a nontraditional background, who is going after one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill,” said Melissa Deckman, professor of political science at Washington College. 

But Deckman says she doesn’t think the AOC playbook will work for Wilkes, mainly because the type of district Ocasio-Cortez ran in is very different from the type of district that Hoyer has represented since 1981. 

Ocasio-Cortez hails from a district in New York City with a much lower median income ($60,173) than Maryland’s 5th District ($99,738), and while AOC’s district is 18% white, 60% of Hoyer’s suburban and rural district is white. 

“Her views on a lot of issues are too far to the left for many voters in that district,” Deckman said.

Mondale Robinson, national political director of Democracy for America, one of the progressive groups that have endorsed Wilkes, said the candidate doesn’t need to be compared to anybody, and should be judged by her own story and the prescriptions she’s offering to address the needs of the district. 

“I don’t think we need to think about the second coming of AOC,” Robinson said. “Mckayla is just Mckayla. She has her own stories and her own experiences, and if we dive into Mckayla’s story it shows she’s relatable and reflects the needs of her district.”

Other progressive organizations that have endorsed Wilkes include Brand New Congress and Democratic Socialists of America. 

“Especially running against a longtime incumbent like Steny Hoyer, there is some trepidation about whether this is a real campaign, or if the candidate is running something that is more than just a protest,” Robinson. “But Mckayla is running a quality campaign.”

Hoyer has held his seat for 39 years — and as one of the most well-known members of Congress, he has had few serious challengers, especially in the Democratic primary. 

Annaliese Davis, national press secretary for the House Majority Leader, said in an email that Hoyer takes every opponent seriously, including Wilkes.

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Until his activities were curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, Hoyer was a constant presence in his district, from the University of Maryland campus in College Park inside the Capital Beltway to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Lexington Park, far outside the Beltway. 

In recent weeks, Hoyer has been endorsed by the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, and by CASA in Action, the leading immigrant rights organization in the Mid-Atlantic.

“Congressman Hoyer is a true champion in our community and has shown his support for years,” said Gustavo Torres, CASA in Action’s president.

According to Federal Election Commission data, Hoyer has raised just under $1.5 million this election cycle; Wilkes has raised about $93,000, while rejecting corporate donations and relying on personal donations and grass-roots support. 

“If you don’t have the resources to get your name out there, it’s a big disadvantage,” Deckman said. 

Deckman also described the difficulty of running in an election where the national stakes are high, during the Trump presidency. 

“Trying to elect even more progressive Democrats might put that House seat at some risk,” she said. “I think Maryland primary voters will think they can’t jeopardize the Democrats’ control of Congress.” 

Wilkes continues to forge ahead with her campaign, despite the difficulties of campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic. She can no longer go door to door, but continues to phone-bank and hold online town halls to virtually reiterate to Maryland’s 5th District that she knows their struggles, having lived them herself.

“She would be a fantastic representative and a game changer in Congress,” Robinson said.

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