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On an Icy Day, A Challenger Wins Her Heated Contest

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By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fort Foote Baptist Church sits in the shadow of National Harbor, with a sign on its lawn that reads: "The Love of Jesus Is in Our Hearts Here."

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Donna Edwards arrived by van at 8:30 a.m. yesterday, looking for love from Jesus and anyone else willing to help her unseat one of the lions of Maryland politics, 15-year congressional incumbent Al Wynn. Edwards came with a couple of volunteers, wearing a black riding hat and a pair of funky red suede kitten-heel mules that seemed wholly unsuitable for the frigid weather and the nine -- count 'em, nine -- voter-handshaking stops on her schedule. "Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I've got a lot of adrenaline."

Upstarts and upsets are what give American politics its unpredictable sizzle. You can be Mr. Chairman for years, and one sullen day find yourself all alone at the Tastee Diner with just your scrambled eggs and your memories. Political graveyards always feed the fantasies of challengers, despite those nettlesome statistics, like this one: Since 1998, only 3 percent of congressional House incumbents have been beaten at the polls.

That said, if you're a snazzy, well-financed African American candidate taking on one of the 41 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (not counting Illinois Sen. Barack Obama), all of a sudden your odds improve, political analysts say. You could be Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in 2006, Artur Davis (D-Ala.) in 2002, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) in 1996 (she is now the caucus chairwoman), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in 1994. All of the above dethroned incumbents who were Somebodies. Or you could be Adam Clayton Powell IV, he of good looks and a famous name, and get crushed like a water bug in 1994 by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York, who dismissively observed of his opponent: "I don't know who the hell he is."

Everybody will know who Edwards is soon, for last night she became a giant-slayer, clubbing Wynn like he had never been clubbed before. By 1 a.m. today, with final results still being tallied, she was winning by a healthy 20-point margin and a stunned Wynn had conceded. Donna Edwards is no Adam Clayton Powell IV.

The 49-year-old Fort Washington lawyer is an executive for a nonprofit foundation. She also is the single mother of 19-year-old Jared, who plays basketball and majors in economics at Drew University. She picked him up at the train station yesterday, amid all her running around -- one more vote for Mom. She sometimes thinks back to when Jared was just a boy who had a learning disability and people were telling her he'd never read and wouldn't be able to play sports. She had separated from her husband, didn't have a car, no full-time job. For a time, she shared a bedroom with her son in her mother's house. With money tight, she would sometimes strap Jared on the back of her bicycle and pedal him to day care.

Some in the Wynn camp have mocked Edwards's tales of struggle as cheap cinematic politicking.

Said Edwards: "I told someone the other day, 'I don't want anybody doing a pity party for me.' There are a lot of single mothers working every day. People like me, who have had to work their way out of a hole to finally make it out, we don't want anybody feeling sorry for us. We just want public policy that works for us, that we get a few advantages every now and then."

Edwards certainly had the advantage on the road to Fort Foote Baptist Church. There was nothing but her blue-gold-and-white signs. Which made sense. Fort Foote is not only Edwards's home polling location, it is where she worships. Wynn volunteer Ted Farmer had to get on his cellphone and order up some signs. "You know, our guy came and dropped off coffee and doughnuts, but no signs," said Farmer.

Two years ago, Edwards fell short by 2,725 votes -- or 3.3 percentage points -- in her first bid to represent the 4th Congressional District, which twists and turns from northern Montgomery County into central and southern Prince George's. It is a district so Democratic that the winner of the primary is virtually guaranteed an office on Capitol Hill. On the eve of this election, Edwards was so confident she wouldn't even contemplate the possibility of a third try. "Look. I'm winning tomorrow," she said. "So when I run again, it's going to be for reelection."

Turns out she was right.

Wynn volunteer Farmer, an Oxon Hill real estate agent, was zipped up in a blue ski jacket, selling his candidate but quietly admiring Edwards. "Donna's run a serious campaign, much more than a couple of years ago," he said. "But the situation in this country and in Prince George's County, where I live, demands a been-there, done-that guy. I don't think we can afford a newbie."


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