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.

Measure to Limit Solitary Confinement Advances in Senate Immigration Bill

Originally published in Solitary Watch on May 29, 2013.

The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week includes an amendment that would curtail the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. While the measure’s reach is limited, its passage by the Committee nonetheless represents a significant step for human rights activists working to help shape the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which will be debated by the full Senate in June.

The amendment, Blumenthal 2, was drafted by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). It sets limits on the use of solitary confinement for adults–in most cases, 15 days–and bans it for all children under 18 years old. The measure also explicitly prohibits the use of solitary confinement to “protect” detainees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the amendment does make it more difficult, it falls short of banning solitary confinement for detainees with mental illness. Detention centers that opt to isolate mentally ill individuals are required to have a medical professional visit with the immigrant at least three times each week as well as weekly visits by a mental health clinician for regular evaluations.

Lastly, the amendment has an oversight component so that detention facilities must submit both the reason for and the duration of all solitary confinement sentences to Congress annually for review.

The Senate’s attention to solitary confinement is relatively historic. Last June the first-ever congressional hearing, led by Richard Durbin (D-IL) was held to discuss the legal, economic and psychological costs of solitary confinement. While a host of local groups have cropped up to fight solitary confinement on the state level, Congress has largely avoided the issue.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, sent a letter in support of Blumenthal 2 to Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. The letter said, “The amendment balances the operational needs of facilities that hold immigration detainees with basic respect for the health and human rights of detainees subject to solitary confinement.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also gave vocal support to the passage of the amendment and said, “The adoption of the amendment takes positive steps forward in fixing a serious injustice the extent of which has only recently come to light.”

Due to increased enforcement measures put in place by the Obama administration, the immigration detention population has dramatically increased. There are 85 percent more immigrants detained today than there were in 2005, and these detentions are usually indefinite sentences. Individuals are held, often for months at a time, until either they voluntarily sign deportation documents or until immigration authorities decide whether to deport the immigrants or let them stay.

Observers argue that while placing U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement is problematic, placing alledgedly undocumented immigrants in solitary confinement is even worse because these individuals are not even serving criminal sentences, but are simply waiting for civil deportation hearings. Beyond that, critics argue that solitary confinement hurts detainees’ ability to fight their cases due to highly restricted access to telephones and other means of communication.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that she believes “solitary confinement should be the exception, not the rule.” She asked federal immigration officials to report back with greater detail about the usage and implementation of solitary confinement in federal facilities.

March 2013 article by the New York Times and The Investigative Reporting Workshop found that on any given day, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials hold approximately 300 immigrants in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities across the country. Their research showed that nearly 50 percent of these individuals are kept in solitary confinement for 15 days or more–a point that psychiatric experts say detainees are at risk for severe mental harm. The study found that about 35 detainees are kept for more than 75 days.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration, responded to the report by sending a letter to John Morton, director of ICE urging him to change their use of solitary confinement. “This report suggests an overreliance by the ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration,” Schumer wrote.

In 2012, the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights, surveyed conditions in many detention centers and county jails that work in conjunction with the ICE. This was the first comprehensive study on the effects of solitary confinement on immigration detainees. The research showed that solitary confinement is often arbitrarily and punitively applied, inadequately monitored and damaging to detainees’ health; investigators also found that most immigrants are denied any meaningful avenues of appeal. Additionally, they found that ICE failed to hold detention centers and jails accountable for their use and abuse of solitary confinement.

Blumenthal 2 would be first federal legislation to place limitations on the duration and circumstances under which detained immigrants can be placed in solitary confinement.  It is unclear at this point whether the amendment will pass the full Senate or the House.

The measure would apply only to those held in immigrant detention, and not to all federal prisoners. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is estimated to hold at least 10,000 individuals in isolation in prisons across the country, and is not subject to any laws that that regulate, monitor, and restrict the use and abuse of solitary confinement in federal prisons.