Interview with Representative Donna Edwards

Originally published on April 25th in In These Times as part of a larger interview series with progressive political challengers.
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DONNA EDWARDS

BACKGROUND: U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 4th District since 2008, attorney, and first executive director and co-founder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence

THE RACE: U.S. Senate, Maryland

Donna Edwards, 57, is facing off against fellow Congress member Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the April 26 primary. Of the two, only Edwards voted in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus 2016 budget. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Edwards was not endorsed by the famously corporate-friendly Congressional Black Caucus PAC. In response to that failure to endorse, the racial justice group Color of Change began circulating a petition in March asking people to call on the CBC PAC to remake their board, because the current board is dominated by lobbyists who represent corporations “that are notorious for mistreatment and exploitation of Black people, including private prisons, big tobacco and the anti-worker companies that make up the National Restaurant Association.”

KEY ENDORSEMENTS: Progressive Democrats of America and Democracy for America, UNITE HERE, International Association of Machinists, NOW
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Why are you running for Senate?

DONNA EDWARDS: I’m running for the Senate to give a voice to average working people in Maryland. People like single moms and young men who maybe messed up and want to restart their lives, and our seniors and veterans and small businesses and women and minority-owned businesses who need a voice at the table where public policy is made. And my life experience as a working person gives me an important voice that’s missing from the United States Senate.

What are the three most important issues facing America today that should be addressed in the Democratic Party platform and how are you proposing to address those issues?

You start with an education system that’s very flawed, in which depending on what zip code you’re in, you get a better education than the next kid. That hampers your ability to get a job and get a start in the economy and earn your way into the middle class. We have to create jobs and opportunity through investing in our transportation and our infrastructure, and jobs for the 21st century, and stop trading them away to our competitors. We have trade policies that really disadvantage average American workers.

And we have to deal with changing the economic processes in our urban communities. That goes from improving law enforcement and pursuing community-based relationships, to getting guns off of our streets, to educating and training and creating jobs in the urban core. If we do that, we will strengthen the rest of the country.

How have social movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy and climate change activism influenced your campaign?

I’ve always believed in outside movements, because I think that government doesn’t move effectively and elected officials don’t move effectively unless they have a big push from the outside. Black Lives Matter, for example, has certainly changed the conversation when it comes to mass incarceration, law enforcement and improving young black men and women’s prospects.

Look at climate change. We would not elevate these concerns about climate change if the young people around this country didn’t say “we want an earth that’s available to all of us and for future generations,” and really compel us to act. So I very much believe in organizations pushing the envelope for policymakers, holding us accountable. That will make me a better senator, and it will get us better policies.

Bernie Sanders campaign has galvanized young progressive voters across the country and attracted a lot of independent support. What are the lessons here for the Democrats and for your campaign in particular?

My campaign has focused on energizing and organizing people who sometimes sit outside the political process because they don’t believe it’s about them. We have let them know that I intend to have their voice in the United States Senate. And they’re responding to that.

We’ve done that by pushing against this party establishment that really just wants to anoint and appoint the next successor to [incumbent Maryland Sen.] Barbara Mikulski, and people are standing up and saying “no, that’s not the way we do it.” We want to make sure that the voices of working women, black women, young people, our seniors and our veterans are heard in public policy. And they’re showing up in waves of volunteers and small donors.

What is your campaign doing to bring more people into the political process?

We’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people who are running community-based organizations that are under the radar—like those working with ex-offenders and registering ex-offenders, who can now vote in the state of Maryland, so they have a voice. We’ve spent time with single moms and working moms who are struggling to make ends meet. We’ve reached out to some people who say, “You know, I’ve never voted before,” or “I only vote sometimes, but I believe in you and I believe in us and I’m prepared to vote.” And we’ve been organizing and working on college campuses to draw in young people, to make sure that they feel like they’re part of this campaign. All of those things are why I’m ahead in the polls.

Democrats have lost their majorities in both the House and Senate. What do you think the Democratic Party needs to do to gain them back?

Number one, we should not run away from who we are as Democrats and the values that we share. We should be the party standing up to protect and expand Social Security and Medicare; we should be the party that’s creating middle-class jobs and making sure that college is affordable so that our young people can realize their aspirations. We need to be the Democratic Party that works for working people. When we do that, people respond.

I go back to Shirley Chisholm; when she was first elected to the House of Representatives, she said, “If they don’t put a seat at the table, bring your folding chair.” And so we’re going to take folding chairs into the Senate so the voices of ordinary working people get heard.

Why do you think you’re a more qualified candidate than Chris Van Hollen, the U.S. representative from Maryland who is also running for Mikulski’s seat?

In addition to being a lawyer and having worked in the private sector as a systems engineer and analyst for Lockheed Martin, I’m a mom who has raised a child alone. I understand the struggles of working people. Mr. Van Hollen and I have very similar voting records. But we have different priorities. I prioritize fighting against bad trade deals that trade away jobs and opportunities for the American people, fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare from dangerous cuts, standing up to the National Rifle Association to pass sensible gun laws to get these guns off our streets so that 88 people a day don’t lose their lives to senseless gun violence. I’m going to be a fighter for working people.

Republicans have managed to secure important down-ticket and off-year electoral victories; how can Democrats build strong state and local party organizations?

We can start by electing people who understand how to organize and galvanize our electorate, and how to stand for something, so that people know that there is somebody in there who has got their back. I’m that kind of candidate. And when I win that Senate seat, that’s going to translate into down-ballot victories all across our state, in the off-year, off-cycle election.

We lose elections because our voters stay home. So our challenge is to make sure that people are mobilized and organized and energized on Election Day, because we have candidates out there who are speaking to their concerns, speaking to their needs and willing to go to bat for them. When voters know that, they’re willing to come to the polls on Election Day.

Sanders has struggled with winning over people of color and a generation of women who find inspiration in the Hillary Clinton’s struggles and accomplishments; Clinton has struggled with youth voters and the party’s left base. What sort of bold, progressive platform can unite these constituencies in November and in years to come? 

I think the primary race and the battle that is being fought in the Democratic Party is one that’s about substance and values. I’m absolutely confident that if either of the two candidates wins the nomination, that they will win the general election in November because they do have bold ideas. Sometimes they differ, and this primary race has really brought to the fore some of those really bold ideas—on college affordability, on how to bring back jobs and opportunities to the middle class, on how to deal with income inequality. So I feel really confident about our candidates, about their messages, and about the boldness of the ideas that they have.

I endorsed Hillary Clinton. I believe in her candidacy, and frankly, I believe in the candidacy and the power of women. I am running for the U.S. Senate; there are 100 senators, and 20 are women, and only one is a woman of color. There hasn’t been a black woman in the Senate in 22 years, since Carol Moseley Braun. I am proud that she [Braun] has endorsed me and supports my campaign, and I am going to be the next one.

We need more women, not fewer, in political power, and I would like to see that in the highest office in the land, the presidency.

When the Democratic Party chooses its nominee in Philadelphia, the party will come together for the November election. What stands in the way of Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters working together under the Democratic Party big tent?

Nothing. We have a set of shared values as Democrats that are really about fighting for the interests of middle-class families and people who have struggled to enter the middle class. Senator Sanders carries that commitment, and Secretary Clinton carries that commitment. Come November 2016, not only are we going to be on the same page, but we’re going to be winning an election for working people.

There’s Still No Money In Sight for New Rail Tunnels Under the Hudson River. Blame Chris Christie.

Originally published in The American Prospect‘s Tapped blog on July 22, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cancelled a tremendously important rail tunnel project under the Hudson River that had been in the works for nearly 20 years; billions of dollars had already been saved up for it. The only tunnels that currently exist there were built more than 100 years ago, are incapable of handling projected ridership growth, and have suffered serious deterioration—especially after Hurricane Sandy. The new tunnels would have helped not only New Jersey commuters but also all passengers who travel along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Christie’s decision to cancel the tunnel project, motivated by a fear of raising his state’s extremely low gas tax and thereby risk jeopardizing his national political ambitions, was one of the most irresponsible and reckless of his career. He not only cancelled the project, but he also spent the money that had been saved up for it on other things—leaving riders with no tunnel, and no solid prospects for one in the future. (For more details, see my cover story on Christie’s cancellation.)

Though my report was published in January, five months later there had been, according to the New York Times, little progress made towards securing funding for Amtrak’s proposed alternative rail project, which has an estimated price tag of $16 billion. Peter M. Rogoff, the under secretary in the federal Transportation Department, had reportedly “pleaded with transportation officials from throughout the metropolitan area to pull together on a plan.”

Well, it looks like those pleas didn’t go very far. Just yesterday Politico reported that Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, expressed great frustration at the lack of regional leadership in taking steps towards building the new tunnels. He said the region’s failure to act is “almost criminal” and that building these tunnels is “perhaps one of the—if not the—most important project in the country right now that’s not happening.”

Amtrak has estimated that their two-tube rail tunnel project under the Hudson River could be built by 2025 if funds were appropriated immediately. Yet after months of urgent begging, still nobody’s coughing up the money. To make matters worse, Amtrak officials aren’t even sure if the existing tunnels can hold up for another decade due to their age and the damage they’ve sustained from Hurricane Sandy.

This is a serious, serious mess. And as this presidential campaign season drags on, don’t forget that it was Chris Christie who orchestrated the disaster.

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2015.
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P
residential candidate Bernie Sanders has excited his base with some bold ideas surrounding higher education. He’s said college should be a right, that public universities should have free tuition, and that public universities should employ tenured or tenure-track faculty for at least 75 percent of instruction, as a way to reduce the growing dependence on cheap adjunct labor. But Sanders’ stances on K-12 issues—arguably more contentious topics for politicians to engage with compared to higher ed and universal pre-K—have garnered far less attention.

Here’s what we know so far:

1. He wants to roll back standardized testing, but still supports Common Core.

Sanders opposes the expansion of standardized testing we’ve seen through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); he argues that such tests narrow school curriculum and hurt student creativity and critical thinking. However, this past March he voted against an amendment that would have allowed states to opt-out of the Common Core standards without a federal penalty. The amendment also would have barred the federal government from “mandating, incentivizing, or coercing” states into adopting the standards.

2.  He supports expanding the school day and year.

Sanders is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and in 2011, he worked to raise support for expanding the school day and year. Citing research on “summer learning loss”—Sanders notes that low-income students stand to lose much of what they learn if they’re denied extra-curricular enrichment opportunities. He also secured more funding for after-school and summer learning opportunities in Vermont.

3. He wants to see teachers paid more, and is a defender of pensions.

Sanders believes all educators, from early childhood workers up to college instructors should be paid more. He said, “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right.” And while he believes the public pension crisis “must be addressed” he is more interested in reigning in Wall Street to solve it than reducing retiree payments.

4. He opposes Big Money in politics, but has not taken a clear position on the role of Big Money in education.

Sanders has come out strongly against oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and other special interests that pour money into politics. Citing these groups as a threat to true democracy—he wants to overturn Citizens United and push for publicly funded elections.

However, whether he will bring the same critical rhetoric to the foundations, consultants, and hedge fund managers shaping education policy remains to be seen. As Anthony Cody, the co-founder of Network for Public Ed pointed out recently, Sanders has yet to speak very clearly on these issues, but his opposition to Big Money elsewhere leads one to think that it’s at least a reasonable possibility.

5. He wants to strengthen who can be considered a “highly qualified” teacher.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education honored Sanders in 2012 for his “outstanding support” for educator preparation programs. In 2011 he introduced the Assuring Successful Students through Effective Teaching Act, which would aim to strengthen the definition of what a “highly qualified” teacher is considered to be, and work to reduce the number of unqualified teachers working in needy schools.

6. He has an unclear position on charter schools, but opposes vouchers.

He voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998, but has not engaged much in the polarized charter debate since. Vermont is one of the few states that do not permit charter schools, in part because the Vermont public education system already allows for “school choice” in other ways. However, Sanders is a strong supporter of teacher unions and collective bargaining, so if he does come to back charters, his support is unlikely to be paired with the type of anti-union rhetoric common in the charter advocacy world.

He also opposes private school vouchers, favoring an expanded federal investment in public schools instead.

So we have some insights, but questions remain. Ultimately if Bernie Sanders wants to win over progressive liberals and campaign as a left alternative to Hillary Clinton, he’ll have to start speaking more explicitly about K-12 education in the coming months.