House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer Is Facing A Primary Challenge

Originally published in The Intercept on April 19, 2019.
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MCKAYLA WILKES, a 28-year-old administrative assistant, part-time student, and mother of two, has had enough. In late March, she announced that she was mounting a bid for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District, aiming to unseat one of the oldest and most powerful Democratic members, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Wilkes is running on a host of progressive policies, but plans to put particular focus on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and affordable housing.

A student of political science, Wilkes hasn’t formerly been involved in politics before, but thinks the moment is too urgent to wait. She wants more “relatable people” in Congress and is fed up with Hoyer’s record, which she says does not adequately represent the needs of those living in his district. “We need someone who will be a voice for us, who knows what we go through as daily constituents, and Steny Hoyer has been in office so long he’s never really had to be a regular constituent,” she said. Hoyer, who is 79 years old, was first elected to Congress in 1981.

Wilkes’s challenge comes after an election year in which insurgent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley toppled entrenched incumbents, making it to Congress and, along the way, showing that it is possible to shake things up and succeed. The Democratic Party has grown increasingly wary of these types of challenges and is trying to make it difficult for candidates like Wilkes to find support for their campaigns. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month said it would cut off vendors that work with primary challengers.

Mark McLaurin, the political director of SEIU 500, said the climate is ripe for taking down veteran lawmakers in Maryland. He pointed to the 2018 cycle, when progressives unseated some of the most powerful politicians in the state, including state Sen. Thomas Middleton, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who represented part of Hoyer’s district.

“I think you could see that kind of wave continue to crest in the Democratic primaries, and anyone who has been there a long time who doesn’t seem terribly in touch with the needs of their increasingly diverse electorate could find themselves on the losing end,” McLaurin said. “I honestly don’t think in this environment anyone is safe, and certainly not Congressman Hoyer.”

Wilkes is counting on the fact that a lot of people might be interested in unseating an old, centrist white man who seems often out of touch with the more progressive direction of his party.

Her political strategy was on display this past week, in response to a tweet by the president of the United States that included a misleading video that suggested Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar downplayed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wilkes blasted Hoyer as a “coward” for not only his failure to quickly defend Omar, but also for his thinly veiled criticism of the Muslim representative at the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference.

On Thursday, following the release of the redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Hoyer quickly dismissed the idea of impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, despite its strong evidence of potential obstruction of justice. Hoyer said that “going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point.” A few hours later, after public backlash, he walked back his comments to say “all options ought to remain on the table.”

By contrast, Wilkes voiced her unwavering support for impeaching the president. “It’s always been necessary but I think now more than ever,” she told The Intercept after Hoyer’s initial statement. “We can’t risk Trump running in the next election. He simply needs to be stopped and I don’t understand why Democratic leadership is denying this.”

WILKES’S CAMPAIGN IS just getting off the ground, backed so far by volunteers, including a group of students at the University of Maryland, College Park. She’s planning a kickoff event for the end of May.

She admits that she hasn’t really figured out yet how much money she’ll need to be competitive, but insists that she’s not worrying about that right now, and doesn’t have a set overall fundraising goal. Her first benchmark is to raise $25,000 by the end of the month.

Hoyer has not faced a serious primary challenger in years, and, in that sense, Wilkes is entering into unknown political territory. In 2018, Hoyer won his election with 70 percent of the vote and won his primary contesta gainst Dennis Fritz, a U.S. Air Force veteran, with 84 percent of the vote. Fritz raised less than $5,000 and  had “no campaign platform” because “the platform is of the people.” He had previously run for Congress in 2014 as an independent write-in candidate.

Wilkes’s challenge could become more potent if she gets the support of local and national groups, which would work to help elevate her profile and reach new voters. She said she’s had conversations with Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, but is not officially associated with them. Evan Weber, the political director at the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led group that helped put the Green New Deal on the map, recently reached out as well.

The primary election is one year away, and many political groups have not yet begun reaching out to candidates they might support. Larry Stafford Jr., the executive director of Progressive Maryland, one of the state’s largest grassroots advocacy organizations, told The Intercept that they haven’t been in touch with Wilkes, but also haven’t begun their 2020 endorsement process.

In early April, she said that her campaign was having some trouble finding a filmmaker due to the DCCC’s primary blacklist, but Wilkes told The Intercept that they did end up finding people interested in helping her with campaign videos.

“I feel confident that my campaign will be able to find alternative vendors, but primarily because I am running against Steny Hoyer,” she said. “I worry about the other progressive candidates running against lesser-known incumbents.” (Justice Democrats has launched an effort to help challengers find alternative firms.)

There are a few other factors that could work in Wilkes’s favor. McLaurin of SEIU 500 pointed out the relevance of Maryland’s closed primaries. Thomas Middleton, for example, lives in a majority-white district but one that’s majority black in the Democratic primary. “We made it about race in the primary and black people woke up and said, ‘Oh wait, why do we keep voting for the white guy?’ and that’s how he lost,” said McLaurin, whose group backed Middleton’s primary challenger, Arthur Ellis. “Like nobody cared in Charles County that Middleton was the chair of the Senate Finance Committee. At the end of the day, nobody cared.”

The state’s increasingly younger electorate could also hurt Hoyer, McLaurin added. “I can guarantee you there are less fervent Hoyer supporters than four years ago because four years ago, more of them were alive,” he said. “The folks who vote for the longtime incumbent reflexively, they die. The newer folks don’t have that kind of allegiance to Hoyer or anyone.” The median age in Maryland’s 5th District is 38, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey.

Wilkes will likely benefit from the presidential campaigns actively trying to turn out the progressive base of Maryland voters, McLaurin said. “Kamala Harris has her headquarters in Maryland, and Bernie [Sanders] will be campaigning here, and by the time the Maryland primary rolls around, they’ll all be desperately trying to turn out voters, many of whom are not necessarily beholden to Hoyer or anyone else,” he said. If Wilkes wins the April 2020 primary, her odds of winning the general election are not long. Trump earned just 33 percent of the vote in District 5 in 2016.

Wilkes describes the whole process as an exciting adrenaline rush. “It’s like wow, I’m actually doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is fight for what I believe in,” she said. And while she aims to be elected, she said she also wants to send the message that anyone can run and step up to the plate.

“I want to win, but it’s not all about winning,” she said. “If I don’t win, then at least someone will be holding Steny Hoyer accountable.”

WILKES’S PLATFORM, and specifically her plank on criminal justice, is in part shaped by her own experiences. She decided early to come out andshare that she has a criminal record, an unconventional move that she hopes will help her earn voters’ trust. Her aunt, Sharon Carver, was a civilian employee killed at the Pentagon on 9/11, and after her death, Wilkes started acting out. “I skipped class and I ran away from home,” she tweeted. “I was in and out of the juvie from the ages of 14-17.”

Wilkes said this experience exposed her early to the abuses of the criminal justice system, and later on as a teen, she was arrested for having marijuana, though never charged for possession. She said she’s also had her license suspended for not paying traffic tickets on time, something she didn’t do because she was “in an extremely rough spot financially.” Wilkes was then charged with driving on a suspended license, but said if she didn’t drive to work, she would have lost her job.

Wilkes told The Intercept that she felt nervous about sharing those details of her past. “I was intimidated and I felt kind of ashamed,” she said. “But then I thought about it and I need to be transparent because I’m not alone, and my experiences really show how they punish the impoverished.” Wilkes ultimately got out of debt with help from her family. “Thank god I had my family there, it was just unbearable. At one point, there was like $800 in tickets to pay,” she said.

These criminal penalties she faced, which critics say amount to a criminalization of poverty, are increasingly controversial, and some states have taken steps to end the practice. On Thursday, Montana’s state legislature passed a bill that would end the suspension of driver’s licenses over unpaid fines and fees, coming on the heels of Virginia, which passed a similar measure earlier this month. Wilkes, for her part, wants to tackle these issues from Congress. “Our criminal justice system must be one of rehabilitation, not punishment,” her platform reads. “It must stop going after people of color for low-level drug offenses and make it easier for low-income individuals to defend themselves.”

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