Mckayla Wilkes, the progressive political newcomer who attempted to unseat U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer in the Democratic primary last June, is planning to run a second time for the powerful Democrat’s seat.
Wilkes, 30, received 26.7% of the vote in the primary compared to Hoyer’s 64.4%.
“We still have the same person, who is serving his 20th term in office,” Wilkes said in an interview. “We still need fundamental change. That’s why I decided to run again.”
Wilkes, a Black woman raised in a low-income household in Maryland’s 5th District, asserts that Hoyer has done little to help communities of color. She cited his opposition to school busing in the 1970’s, his voting record on criminal justice issues, and said he has failed to provide adequate relief for Marylanders struggling through the pandemic.
Wilkes says that she has experienced the unequal criminal justice and health care systems first hand.
Although Hoyer won the primary vote by 38 points, Wilkes said she was Hoyer’s most serious Democratic primary contender during his 40-year tenure.
“He’s probably never had to work that hard in a primary, ever,” said Wilkes, who attracted support from national progressive groups like Democracy for America and Women for Justice.
“I made the decision immediately to run again — it’s hard for a primary challenger to come off victorious with such a entrenched person as Steny.”
Wilkes argues that now that the progressive movement in the 5th District has momentum, her campaign can build off of it. When she unofficially announced her 2022 run on Twitter in January, over 400 volunteers signed up to help.
“We’re setting the groundwork and infrastructure to get the ball rolling early,” Wilkes said. “And this time around we want to speak with people safely. COVID-19 had a lot to do with the halt in our operations — grass-roots candidates depend on those one-on-one conversations with voters.”
For the last election, Wilkes knocked on nearly 60,000 doors before the pandemic began. According to the Federal Election Commission, her campaign raised $444,239. Hoyer raised over $4.5 million throughout the course of his 2020 campaign, including his general election run — though much of that money went out to fellow Democrats.
After the primary, Wilkes started a nonprofit to end what she calls the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Wilkes was in and out of juvenile detention as a teenager for missing class while dealing with grief and undiagnosed depression. She says that she founded the organization to ensure that no child experiences the same challenges that she did.
Schools Not Jails advocates for education, policing and criminal justice reform — and focuses on getting involved at the local level: endorsing local candidates and registering voters in low-turnout groups like the formerly incarcerated.
“Change should happen from the bottom up,” Wilkes said. “We’re trying to get more people politically engaged. We’re trying to transform the system on the state and local level.”
But Wilkes, as of now, is not Hoyer’s only challenger: Greenbelt Mayor Colin A. Byrd announced plans to run for Hoyer’s seat in December, before Hoyer’s 21st term even began. But, Byrd and Wilkes say they don’t view each other as competition — they’ve agreed that only one of them will end up forging ahead, as there needs to be a unified opposition to unseat Hoyer.
“I had a conversation with him, and we do plan on consolidating at one point,” Wilkes said. “The main focus is to have a progressive emissary, whether that’s Colin or myself. The bigger picture is the movement.”
Byrd, the 28-year-old mayor who was elected in 2019 after a term as a city councilmember, has said that Hoyer can no longer represent a diverse area like the 5th District. And, like Wilkes, he’s an enthusiastic supporter of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and criminal justice reform.
“It will be important to consolidate, so there will be a clear, singular, unified alternative to Congressman Hoyer,” Byrd said in an interview.
Wilkes plans to officially announce her run later this week.