A Split Among Labor Groups Has Made a Maryland Primary Suddenly Contentious

Originally published in The Intercept on June 1, 2018.
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What was once thought to be a quiet Democratic primary in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has turned into a competitive race for the county’s highest elected official — thanks in large part to a split among organized labor.

On June 26, residents of what’s colloquially referred to as “PG County” or just “PG,” will cast ballots for county executive, a person tasked with managing all government departments and agencies. PG County’s outgoing county executive, Rushern Baker, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is now gunning for the state’s governorship. In a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1, the winner of June’s Democratic primary in the county executive race is all but certain to win the general election in November.

While there are nine Democrats vying for the spot, the top two candidates in the race are Angela Alsobrooks and Donna Edwards. Unions are divided over the women, citing their political records and sources of funding. Even some locals from the same union have backed different candidates. There are four SEIU locals in Prince George’s County, for example, and while the two largest — SEIU 500 and SEIU 32BJ — back Edwards, SEIU 1199 and SEIU 400 are supporting Alsobrooks. (This is quite different from the Maryland governor’s race, where unions have largely coalesced around one Democratic candidate, Ben Jealous.)

Edwards, who represented Prince George’s County in the House of Representatives from 2008 to 2017, was the first black woman elected to Congress from Maryland. She’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and, in 2016, ran against Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate, in a race where she received considerable support from EMILY’s List. Taking on the white male dominance of the Senate was central to Edwards’s ultimately unsuccessful bid.

That’s not the case this time around, as her main competitor is also an African-American woman and a single working mother. Alsobrooks, who has served as PG County’s elected state’s attorney since 2011 and led the county’s Revenue Authority for six years before that, leads the race in fundraising. With less than four weeks to go, Alsobrooks has $848,326 on hand, compared to Edwards’s $240,884, according to campaign finance reports.

With nearly a million residents, Prince George’s County, just outside of Washington, D.C., is the second most populous county in Maryland and one of the wealthiest black-majority counties in the United States. Sixty-five percent of Prince Georgians are African-American, and the county’s median household income stands at $76,700, compared to a U.S. median household income of $56,400.

The two main issues in the campaign are economic development and schools. Prince George’s County public schools have been racked by scandal over the last year and a half, and both candidates speak of the need for more development, bringing more wraparound services to schools and reducing class sizes. PG County’s teachers union, which represents 9,000 members working in the district’s public schools, is backing Edwards in the primary.

The contest has escalated in recent weeks following the release of new mailers and online ads by a pro-Edwards Super PAC funded by unions. The ads accuse Alsobrooks of pay-to-play politics and allege that she’s beholden to real estate developers. One flier says, “Wealthy developers control Prince George’s County Government. Pay-to-play Angela Alsobrooks is right in the middle of it.” The Super PAC is funded primarily by the hospitality workers union, Unite Here Local 25, and the construction workers union, LiUNA.

According to the latest campaign filing reports, 85 percent of Edwards’s contributions were for less than $150, with about 30 percent coming from residents who live in Prince George’s County. Roughly 80 percent of Alsobrooks’s donors came from PG County, and 73 percent were from small-dollar contributors. But she has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate developers. Edwards, by contrast, has pledged not to accept developer money.

The history of the county executive office makes the ads particularly contentious. In 2011, Baker’s predecessor, Jack Johnson, was sentenced to jail for seven years on shocking corruption, bribery, and extortion charges. Baker, who ran on a platform of “clean government” has spent the last eight years working to rebuild the county’s tarnished reputation.

Alsobrooks has called the ads an “evil lie” and “offensive.” “They are calling me a criminal,” she said in a press conference held in mid-May. “I am deeply offended. It is unfair, irresponsible, and unethical.”

The Super PAC has raised more than $650,000 to help elect Edwards. Alsobrooks has tried to frame that money as coming from “outsiders” — since Unite Here’s headquarters is based in D.C. and LiUNA’s is in Reston, Virginia. But Local 25 represents 3,200 members who work in PG County, and LiUNA represents 1,500 PG County workers. In an interview with The Intercept, Alsobrooks went so far as to say the Super PAC reminds her of Donald Trump’s tactics. “These are outsiders trying to divide our community and create fear and negativity,” she said. “The fact that a Super PAC is involved ought to be very troubling. This is also what Donna said she was against in 2015 when she said she was against outside big money. It all reminds me of Trump.”

Mark McLaurin, political director for SEIU Local 500, which also endorsed Edwards but has not contributed to this particular Super PAC, told The Intercept that he “rejects out of hand that there is some equivalence” between a union-funded Super PAC and a real estate developer that gives the maximum contribution of $6,000 or puts half a million dollars into a Super PAC.

“By the law the only money that unions have to use for political activity are the small-dollar donations from members who are often making just $12 and $15 an hour,” he said. “But they contribute because they believe in the power of the union’s collective political operation to balance the scales. When you’re attacking a Super PAC that’s funded off the back of voluntary contributions from workers, you are in effect attacking workers.”

McLaurin also referenced an upcoming Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, in which the court is expected to strike a heavy blow to public-sector unions. “With the Janus decision hanging over our heads, which is a kill shot aimed at working folk, the idea that a Democrat who calls themselves progressive would participate in the demonizing of unions is really just shameful, unacceptable, and underscores why we decided not to back her,” he said.

Local 500 is also notably aiming to unseat Maryland’s Senate president, Mike Miller, who has served in the legislature for the last 43 years. McLaurin has linked his union’s support for Edwards to this larger effort, telling the Washington Post that electing Edwards would be a “body blow” to the Democratic establishment.

Alsobrooks maintains that there hasn’t really been a labor split, noting that a majority of unions have backed her. “What’s more interesting is that unions that supported Donna’s Senate race in 2016, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are now backing me this time,” she told the Intercept. “The Amalgamated Transit Union, the SEIU, the AFGE — they were previously supporters of Donna and now they endorsed me.”

UNIONS THAT PREVIOUSLY backed Edwards and now support her opponent point to Edwards’s track record in Congress.

Pat Lippold, vice president of political action for SEIU 1199, which represents nurses and hospital workers, told The Intercept that her union decided not to back Edwards after being let down by her tenure in the federal government. “We put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent expenditure to back her for Congress when she ran in 2008, and we were thrilled to elect her,“ she said. Lippold said that when Edwards was in office, though, the representative would not return the union’s phone calls and was generally unresponsive to their concerns. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Lippold explained, was when the union asked for Edwards’s support in fighting a new hospital operated by a provider known to be anti-union that would compete with a unionized one nearby. Edwards resisted and the unionized hospital is now closed. “People want to profess that she was so pro-union. Well, that was not a pro-union move,” said Lippold. “We met with her repeatedly to try to mend fences, but not once did she acknowledge that that was a problem or that she could have done something different.”

Edwards told The Intercept that she feels that she’s “on the right side of history” with that hospital episode, and that she “doesn’t even understand the argument” that the union is making. Edwards said that every Maryland member of Congress supported the new hospital, yet she’s “the only one that 1199 has held that against.” It’s “kind of bogus,” she said.

Alsobrooks’s tenure in local government has also inspired some support.

When she led the state’s attorney’s office, she increased the number of staffers, as well as their salaries and benefits, which is one thing that earned her SEIU 1199’s backing, Lippold said. “A lot of our members are overworked and underpaid, and Angela’s work going and fighting for money and additional staff really struck our union,” she said.

McLaurin of SEIU 500 said he thinks that workers who represent the lower end of the economic spectrum, like fast-food workers, janitorial staff, and adjuncts, have tended to back Edwards, while some of the more higher-earning unionized workers have rallied behind Alsobrooks.

The question over who can command the true mantle of a “grassroots” campaign has been hotly contested. Unite Here Local 25’s President Linda Martin, who is also a resident of Prince George’s County, told The Intercept that her members are very “fired up” for Edwards. “We’re putting this excitement into direct action,” she said. “Our members have been out knocking doors every other Saturday since February, canvassing in teams of 30 to 50 union members each time. Between our face-to-face canvassing and our regular phone-banking, we’re reaching thousands of Prince George’s County voters.”

Alsobrooks, though, is being supported by a smaller PAC, a political arm of a group that represents minority-led businesses and nonprofits in Prince George’s County. The head of that PAC, Sandy Pruitt, told The Intercept that her group sees itself as the grassroots voice, pushing for constituencies who don’t often get a seat at the table. “It’s a small clique in this county who makes decisions, but Angela has demonstrated she wants to ensure we get our voices heard,” she said.

Pruitt dismissed Edwards’s claim of being a grassroots candidate. “Donna is not out here going around listening to all the groups, and she’s not doing the hard work on the ground because Donna has gotten $660,000 from outside groups,” she said. “I was someone who supported Donna getting elected to Congress, but once she got in, she never came out to one of our events in her eight years in Congress, and we’re the largest grassroots organization representing the community.”

Despite both leading candidates being women of color, they each say they’ve experienced subtle discrimination while campaigning.

Many have asked whether electing Alsobrooks — who has served in local government for a long time — would essentially be a third term for Rushern Baker and his establishment ilk.

“It’s so sexist, so insulting,” Alsobrooks told The Intercept. “I’m an independently elected official, and, in my own right I’ve run two major agencies. I have a rock-solid record of accomplishments, but the perception is that if you’ve accomplished anything, there’s some guy you must be latching on to.”

Edwards, in turn, thinks some of the local coverage describing her has been unfairly gendered. “There is no question I’m very outspoken, I’m fearless, I’ve taken on some of the big developers in this fight, and if you look at some of the language that’s been used to describe me, I think some of the words that are used hint at the underlying impact of gender, irrespective of whether that’s front and center.”

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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.