White Man or Black Woman? Senate Race Tears at Maryland Democrats
BALTIMORE — On Capitol Hill, Representative Chris Van Hollen is, literally and figuratively, a Democratic fair-haired boy. An American son of diplomats born while his parents served in Pakistan, he has used his fund-raising savvy, policy smarts and easy manner to position himself, party elders assumed, as a potential Democratic speaker of the House.
Instead, Mr. Van Hollen, now running for the Senate in his home state of Maryland, is fighting for his survival in an identity politics primary that raises an explosive question: Should a white man, or a black woman, inherit the seat held for 30 years by Barbara A. Mikulski, the longest-serving female senator in American history?
The contest between two members of Congress — the low-key Mr. Van Hollen, who trumpets his legislative résumé, and Representative Donna Edwards, a onetime community activist and African-American single mother — has exposed deep fissures among Democrats as it traverses thorny issues of gender, race and class.
It has especially split women. Emily’s List, the political action committee that works to elect Democratic women, has spent more than $2.5 million on television ads for Ms. Edwards, drawing a backlash from female supporters of Mr. Van Hollen, who say he is “more effective” than Ms. Edwards and every bit her equal in championing women’s rights. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 “staunch Democrats and feminists” from Maryland published an open letter saying just that.
To Ms. Edwards, who worked as an activist to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, the effectiveness argument is “insulting.” Shaking hands and snapping selfies outside an early voting center here Tuesday night, she offered a succinct rationale for her candidacy: “The Senate is 100 members — 20 women. There’s nobody in the Senate like me.”
As to the uproar over the push by Emily’s List, Ms. Edwards said she was mystified: “I’m a pro-choice Democratic woman, and Mr. Van Hollen is not.”
Mr. Van Hollen, who helped muscle President Obama’s health care legislation and other high-priority bills through Congress as the right-hand man to the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, cannot exactly argue with that. He is a 57-year-old white man in a party that has a core coalition consisting of minorities, single women and young people. He has countered with a blitz of endorsements from 100 prominent African-American women in Maryland and from a string of female elected officials.
Analysts say black women will decide the race. Perhaps nowhere is the fight for their votes as fierce as here in Baltimore, a majority black city that is about to choose its next mayor. Next week — one day after Tuesday’s Maryland primary — the city will mark the one-year anniversary of the unrest over the death of Freddie Gray. The memory of the 25-year-old black man, who died of injuries he sustained while in police custody, hovers over both races.
So as Ms. Edwards was greeting voters Tuesday night, Mr. Van Hollen was at a restaurant across town, mingling with an enthusiastic, and racially mixed, group of supporters over a dinner of chicken and mashed potatoes. Older black women cooed over him. His host, a Baltimore County councilwoman, Cathy Bevins, who is white, said she had just sent Emily’s List “a nasty little email, telling them, ‘Take me off your list.’ ”
The congressman, doing his best to avoid race and gender questions, reminded the crowd that he has Baltimore ties (his father grew up here) and of his attention to constituent service. He stiffened slightly when asked if the Senate needs a black woman’s voice.
Those who endorsed him, he said, can speak for themselves: “They want somebody with a track record of delivering real results.”
There has not been a black woman in the Senate since Carol Moseley Braun, the nation’s first and only black female senator, left in 1999. In California, Emily’s List is also backing Kamala Harris, who is black and Asian-American, for a Senate seat this year. Here in Maryland, a Monmouth University poll released on Thursday showed Mr. Van Hollen pulling ahead in what has been a tight race with voters, especially women, and starkly divided along racial lines.
“This is the state that Harriet Tubman ran away from twice and Frederick Douglass ran away from at least once, and we’ve never had a black woman elected statewide,” said Benjamin Jealous, the former president and chief executive of the N.A.A.C.P., who supports Ms. Edwards, though he insisted it was for policy reasons, not her race.
Maryland, a heavily Democratic state, is no stranger to rough primary campaigns, especially when there is a rare open seat. Ms. Mikulski, a gruff former social worker from East Baltimore, ran one herself 30 years ago. Then a congresswoman, she reached the Senate by beating a seasoned colleague, Michael D. Barnes, and a sitting governor, Harry Hughes, with the help of a new group: Emily’s List.
Ms. Mikulski, known on Capitol Hill as the “dean of Senate women,” is staying out of the fight over who should carry on her legacy; she calls herself “studiously neutral.” That has not stopped some of her admirers — high-powered Van Hollen backers like Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general — from accusing Emily’s List of wasting its money by going after a rising Democratic star with a good record on women’s rights.
“I used to give money to Emily’s List,” Ms. Gorelick said. “I never will again.”
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, said the group was “doing what we have always done”: leveling the playing field for women who run against better-funded men. “We have an opportunity here to change the face of power in the Senate just as we did in 1986,” she said.
In some ways, Mr. Van Hollen and Ms. Edwards are mirror images of one another. Both are 57 years old. Both are lawyers. Both represent affluent districts in the suburbs of Washington — his largely white, hers largely black. The race is being fought around the margins, over slight differences in policy, dueling endorsements and sharp contrasts in personal style.
On the campaign trail, there have been nasty ads, insults and slights, filtered through the delicate prism of gender and race. When the Maryland Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who is white, called Mr. Van Hollen “a leader who has been born to the job” (a reference, an aide said, to his years in the Maryland legislature and childhood growing up overseas), it sounded to the congresswoman like talk from the old-boy’s network.
“Maybe the first generation to go to college, whose parents lived the American dream,” Ms. Edwards said, referring to herself, “maybe that person is appropriate for the job.” Still, Ms. Edwards has been disappointed that only four of 46 members of the Congressional Black Caucus have publicly endorsed her, though aides say 18 have donated to her campaign.
With Mr. Van Hollen expected to win his district, and Ms. Edwards expected to win hers, Baltimore is a central battleground. Earlier this month, the congressman, in blue blazer and open-collar shirt, was in a poor neighborhood, walking through a fruit and vegetable market trailed by a coterie of black women — members of a health care workers union that supports him.
Rena Kenely, 59, a volunteer at a community center that helps the poor, had stopped in for coffee that day. She said that she had never met Mr. Van Hollen, but that she knew of him and liked his policies on education.
“People think we vote by color, but we don’t,” Ms. Kenely said.
Yet as Ms. Edwards was shaking hands outside the early voting center, it was clear that for some African-American women, it is an agonizing choice. Sharon Green Middleton, a member of the Baltimore City Council, was there. She knows Ms. Mikulski well, likes and respects Mr. Van Hollen, and is “struggling, but leaning” toward Ms. Edwards.
“This is 2016,” Ms. Middleton finally said. “African-American women need a voice.”