By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006
Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) has not faced formidable opposition since he was elected in 1992. He has trounced challengers, returning to office with no less than 80 percent of the vote in a primary or general election.
But Wynn is facing the political challenge of his career in Tuesday's Democratic primary against Donna Edwards, a lawyer and community activist who has mounted a vigorous and well-organized campaign to represent Maryland's 4th Congressional District.
Edwards drew little attention when she filed campaign papers in April to run against Wynn, but she has raised her profile in part with the help of Internet bloggers, who support her positions on the environment, campaign finance reform and Iraq. Edwards opposes the war; Wynn voted for the resolution authorizing it.
Connecticut businessman Ned Lamont's Democratic primary defeat of longtime incumbent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman -- a vocal supporter of the Iraq war -- boosted enthusiasm about Edwards's campaign among bloggers. She continued to hammer Wynn on his vote to go to war in Iraq, calling the seven-term incumbent "Maryland's Joe Lieberman."
Wynn says he was misled by the Bush administration and notes that he was not the only Democrat who was. He has apologized for the vote and now believes the troops should be withdrawn.
"My opponent will say, 'Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for [the war],' " said Edwards during a recent NAACP candidates forum. "Well, sorry is just too late."
Wynn has spent little time campaigning in past elections but has increased his number of public appearances in his district, which includes parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties. And he said he is "reaching deep into the playbook" as the campaign goes into the final stretch.
"We take this campaign very seriously," Wynn said. "But let's not make it seem like I'm campaigning against the second coming of Huey Long."
Edwards is a newcomer to Maryland politics. She has worked on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist for groups such as the Center for a New Democracy, where she was the executive director. On a national level, she has pushed for funding for domestic violence victims and reforming the campaign finance system. Locally, she and a community activist group fought against the building of National Harbor, a multibillion dollar resort along the Potomac River, until developers agreed to add a residential component to the project. She has received endorsements from Progressive Democrats of America, the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women's political action committee.
"I'm not in this as a joke, and I'm not in this to make a statement," Edwards recently told a group of residents during a meet-and-greet at a Mitchellville home. "I'm in this to win it."
Edwards supports a withdrawal from Iraq but has declined to say what the timetable should be. She wants to raise the minimum wage and thinks the country's energy policy should be weaned off of fossil fuels.
But the cornerstone of her campaign is portraying Wynn as out of step with the district's voters.
She points out that Wynn broke ranks with the party to vote in favor of the Bush administration's energy bill in 2003, which authorized tax breaks for energy producers. Wynn also supported the repeal of the estate tax, which would benefit the wealthiest Americans.
These votes, Edwards says, betray the constituents in the solidly Democratic district that runs from Clarksburg in Montgomery to Fort Washington in Prince George's.
Wynn says Edwards, who worked in his law office when she first got out of law school, has mischaracterized his record.
His campaign literature touts the backing of about 40 left-leaning groups, including the AFL-CIO and Planned Parenthood, as evidence that he remains a true Democrat, despite Edwards's attempts to cast him otherwise.
"I consistently vote with pro-choice, I consistently vote with labor unions," Wynn said during a recent interview. "This is a bunch of rubbish of the worst sort."
He makes no apologies for his vote on the Republican-sponsored energy bill. "I'm happy to stand behind the energy bill," he said, noting that the legislation included a $3 billion increase in energy assistance for low-income residents. "I'm more concerned about getting money for low-income residents. She's more concerned about having a partisan fight."
Wynn said he supports repealing the estate tax because business owners in his district and wealthy first-generation African Americans across the country requested it and because he believes people should be taxed when they are alive.
But he is not used to having to explain his position. In the past, he has faced opponents such as Republican John Kimble, who once said he was running because "the salary seems good." Kimble perhaps was best known for offering to pose nude in Playgirl magazine in a stunt to raise campaign money, and he recruited Wynn's ex-wife to do a radio ad six years ago.
Wynn described the contest with Edwards, who has support from Barbra Streisand, Danny Glover and Gloria Steinem, as "the liberal elite versus the pragmatic Democrat."
Although many political observers applaud Edwards's aggressive campaign, they say she has little chance of defeating the seven-term incumbent.
"She's put together a very energetic campaign," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But he's firmly entrenched."
Edwards said that when she became disillusioned with Wynn's record, she began asking elected officials about running against him. "No one would do it," said Edwards, who has not campaigned for office since high school. "They said, 'He can't be beaten, he has a machine.' "
Wynn continues to wave signs on busy intersections in Prince George's and Montgomery, and Edwards continues to try to penetrate Wynn's popularity, holding meet-the-candidate events in living rooms and basements across the district.
Nakia Nicholson, a teacher and Wynn supporter who recently attended one of Edwards's events, left impressed.
"I think she's a very knowledgeable, very capable candidate," Nicholson said.
But was she swayed?
"I'm in the middle right now," she said.