The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donna Edwards wants her Md. seat back. Glenn Ivey stands in the way.

Former Democratic Maryland Rep. Donna F. Edwards speaks with a voter in District Heights, Md., on June 18. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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Glenn Ivey wasn’t planning on being in the parade, but as he pulled up behind it in District Heights on Juneteenth, he thought — why not?

He hopped out of the car, his hands full of campaign literature, his campaign staffers — his family, actually — carrying “Glenn Ivey for Congress” signs, and started greeting the voters who lined the street for the festivities or watched from their front lawns.

“I heard you’re the next congressman!” a resident yelled out as Ivey hustled to the next porch.

Never mind keeping up with the parade. If he wanted to be the next congressman in Maryland’s 4th District, Ivey had work to do. He’s up against Donna F. Edwards, the district’s former congresswoman, in a race for the Democratic nomination — arguably the state’s most competitive congressional primary.

In this deep-blue, majority-Black Prince George’s County-anchored district, Edwards is seeking to mount the rare congressional comeback, hoping to reclaim the seat she held for more than eight years during the Obama era by positioning herself as the most experienced candidate who’s already done the job. She has the most powerful member of Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in her corner, support from key labor unions and liberal advocacy groups, such as Emily’s List and the League of Conservation Voters, which recently spent $550,000 on pro-Edwards ads and mailers.

“I feel really confident in being able to go back and start delivering right away for the people of the 4th District,” Edwards said in an interview.

But some of the same criticisms that hurt her unsuccessful campaigns for Senate in 2016 and for Prince George’s county executive in 2018 have resurfaced, leaving Edwards at times on defense against charges that she had ineffective constituent services during her time in office. A super PAC associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — which has endorsed Ivey — has spent nearly $2 million on ads highlighting that criticism and supporting Ivey, a campaign Edwards acknowledged was “daunting” in the final leg of the race.

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group that endorsed Edwards, has spent $660,000 on pro-Edwards ads and mailers to counter the negative narrative. And Edwards has too, at one point getting help from Pelosi to swat back at the super PAC’s claims. “When Glenn Ivey comes after me, I’m still fighting for you,” Edwards said in her latest ad, highlighting her support for unions, school meal programs and abortion rights, among other things.

Donna Edwards gets help from Pelosi to swat at attack ad tied to AIPAC

Still, the attacks have created an opening for Ivey, who’s built a campaign around pledging to boost resources for public safety and economic recovery in the district. He’s already run twice for the seat, dropping out of a primary bid against Edwards in 2012 and losing in 2016 to Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), who is running for attorney general. Now, Ivey’s hoping for a third-time’s-a-charm victory.

“I think the principal focus for the voters, the point of distinction, is performance. Evaluate us on our track records and vote accordingly,” Ivey said — naturally, arguing that “I think I definitely have a better record of working with people in the community.”

Seven other candidates are also seeking the nomination, including former Prince George’s delegate Angela Angel, though none has been as competitive with Edwards or Ivey in fundraising or endorsements.

Because of how blue the district is President Biden won it by 80 points whoever wins on July 19 almost without doubt becomes the district’s next member of Congress after the November election.

With just weeks to go, the campaigns have reached for some late-game momentum. Accruing more Democratic star power for Edwards, Hillary Clinton held a virtual birthday fundraiser for her just last week. The next day, Ivey held a rare news conference where former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III (who paused his gubernatorial campaign) announced his endorsement — support that Ivey argued was more valuable than national figures.

“There’s no one who’s going to fight harder to make sure we have the jobs we need in this state and in this district than Glenn Ivey,” Baker said, adding Ivey also helped him reduce crime during their time in office.

In a district just 20 minutes from the U.S. Capitol, the race indeed appears less about national politics and more about local personal relationships forged over the years — and local issues, among them public safety and gun violence and the cost of living, according to voters who spoke to The Washington Post.

Both Edwards and Ivey have centered those issues in their campaign ads, with Ivey touting his record fighting crime as the former Prince George’s state’s attorney and Edwards highlighting her support for gun restrictions in Congress and fighting for a living wage — attributes that have resonated with voters.

“I seen her on TV — she said she would support gun violence prevention,” said Sharrief Lee, a 59-year-old Temple Hills resident at the District Heights festival concerned about gun violence, who said she had never voted before but was ready to start now with Edwards.

“I know [Edwards] has done her due diligence for us as well, but I think [Ivey] being in law the way he has been speaks volumes to what he could do in Congress,” said Arlene Spann, an Upper Marlboro small business owner who liked Ivey’s record and some of the programs he created.

Though Ivey says voters probably will find little distinction between him and Edwards on liberal issues — both, for example, put out spots emphasizing the need to protect the right to abortion — the two candidates are pitting very different experiences in public office against each other.

It’s been over a decade since Ivey served as state’s attorney — but his wife, Jolene, serves on the county council and son Julian in the state House, boosting his familiarity across the district.

Ivey, a white-collar attorney, got his start on Capitol Hill working for several Democratic stalwarts including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) in the ’80s and ’90s. Ivey was first elected state’s attorney in 2002, inheriting a local criminal justice system plagued by police misconduct necessitating federal oversight. Ivey says he sought to strike a balance between cracking down on violent crime and police accountability, frequently pointing to the fact that violent crime significantly fell by the time he left office in 2011. Ivey touted community-outreach programs he created to involve residents in crafting policy.

His office didn’t win favor with public opinion in every case, such as after Ivey announced he didn’t have the evidence to indict officers in the death of a man who was found dead in jail after being charged with killing a police officer. But the prosecution of other police officers such as Keith Washington, who shot two furniture deliverymen and killed one while off-duty, drew high-profile attention; Washington had argued self-defense and was recently released from prison after being resentenced.

Krystal Oriadha, executive director of PG Changemakers who served with Ivey on the county’s recent police-reform task force, described Ivey’s perspective on the task force as “forward thinking,” challenging members to “think outside the box” about how to transform policing tactics — something that has been personal to Ivey, who has noted he and his five Black sons have been stopped by police on “pretext stops” that appeared more tied to their race. Ivey said if elected he would seek to tie federal police funding to departments serious about rethinking policing tactics.

But Oriadha added that pledges to boost public safety resources and address violent crime still resonate in the blue county, where “I think overwhelmingly you hear an outcry from community members who want to feel safe,” said Oriadha, a county council candidate who added she is not making an endorsement in the race.

A county, hit by the pandemic, grapples with soaring crime after spending a decade lowering it.

Oriadha noted, though, that if Ivey and Edwards are similar on many of the issues, Edwards’s and Angela Angel’s argument that the liberal state of Maryland needs to have a woman in the delegation may be strongly appealing to some voters, particularly Black women. Maryland has not had a woman in its delegation since Edwards and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) left office in 2017.

Edwards first came to Congress after defeating incumbent Rep. Albert R. Wynn in the 2008 Democratic primary, going after Wynn over his support for the Iraq War while leveraging her reputation as a community activist and lawyer who had worked on the Hill to pass the Violence Against Women Act.

“She was the beginning of what we call the Progressive Caucus on Capitol Hill,” Del. Nicole A. Williams (D-Prince George’s) said at a recent news conference in support of Edwards.

Edwards, who had a leadership role in the Democratic Caucus, says there is a difference between her and Ivey on the issues — she was advocating for them as a member of Congress before him. She noted she was an original co-sponsor of Medicare-for-all and a member of the gun-safety task force that advocated for an assault-weapons ban and closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” to prevent abusive dating partners from obtaining guns, a provision that just passed in Congress.

Sitting on the House committee with oversight of the General Services Administration, Edwards also pushed to build a new FBI headquarters in her district — efforts that are still ongoing in Congress and that all the 4th District Democratic candidates said they would prioritize if elected.

But of her critics, few if any take issue with her record in Congress on liberal causes, or her work on issues such as transportation and infrastructure. For Edwards the hurdles go back to her record on constituent services, the work lawmakers do to assist constituents with problems with federal agencies or in their communities. And throughout the campaign she’s been trying to make amends.

“I hear the criticism,” Edwards told a voter at a senior-living community in Beltsville in May when asked whether her constituent services would be better this time. “And all I can say is the commitment that any legislator makes, which is that I’ll do better. I’ve heard it and I’ll do better.”

Ricarra Jones, political director of 1199SEIU, told The Post in May that Edwards made a similar pledge during the union’s interview with her before endorsing her. The union, which supported Edwards in her earlier years in office, withdrew its support during Edwards’s 2016 Senate race, citing issues with Edwards’s responsiveness to constituents who had Social Security issues and her support for a new non-unionized hospital.

But Jones said the union was willing to give Edwards another shot, seeing her as a strong pro-labor voice in Congress — and a voice for women.

Deni Taveras, a Prince George’s County Council member, said she, too, was willing to overlook her past concerns about Edwards’s constituent services record after having a conversation with her about it. For Taveras, her endorsement came down to Edwards’s experience level, believing she’d be able to build on existing relationships to bring more resources to the county.

“I’ve been a strong critic of her in the past with regards to her constituent services,” Taveras said. “That was troubling to me before. And I feel, and I hope, that is something she has learned from.”

Edwards, however, hasn’t been able to smooth things over with everyone. Matthew Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the union decided to endorse Ivey because it couldn’t shake a negative experience it had with Edwards after it brought concerns to her office about racial bias within NASA Goddard’s performance-review system. Biggs said Edwards “didn’t do anything,” a disappointment that Biggs said cost her the union’s support in 2016 despite its past enthusiasm for her. (Edwards said her staff did work with Biggs on this issue but hit a roadblock when it learned there was pending litigation on the issue from an employee at the Wallops Island NASA facility; Biggs said he would have understood if that was the case but had never heard that until now.)

“Her labor votes were all good — we need every member to support our legislation,” Biggs said. “But when you’re not taking care of the people in your own backyard, that should really be a priority of any member of Congress. That just has not been the case with her.”

Edwards said in an interview she recognizes that people have had different experiences with her office, but noted there were also plenty of people her office helped with foreclosures during the housing crisis or other issues.

Back at the District Heights Juneteenth festival, several voters agreed. Edwards arrived just after Ivey left, drifting to the front of the crowd to greet them.

“You already got my vote!” retired teacher Charlotte Faison cried out, telling Edwards she had just seen the negative ad and didn’t believe the claims were true. “I have a personal connection with Donna,” she told a reporter. “She’s been with my church. She’s been so personable in the community.”

Edwards held out her hand to greet the other women in Faison’s group, introducing herself with perhaps the most potent few words at her disposal: “Hi,” she said, “I’m Congresswoman Donna Edwards.”