Rep. Donna F. Edwards is stooped in a corner fiddling with the sound system. Her event, guest-starring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is about to start. There is barely room to move in the small Hyattsville bakery, and side conversations are bouncing off the walls.
A microphone would be helpful when the speeches begin, and Edwards, who likes to fix stuff, is not above squatting in a fuchsia frock to try to get the job done.
Almost as soon as she unseated an incumbent congressman in a Democratic primary in 2008, Edwards became all about pushing out the Democratic Party’s message. A broken mike won’t stop her. “Good morning!” she says, before turning to what has become her mantra for the midterm elections.
“We know that when women succeed, America succeeds,” she shouts, joined in unison by Pelosi.
The two Democrats are pushing a theme that they hope will draw voters, especially women, to the polls in November. The slogan sounds a little cheesy, when belted in their sing-songy way. Edwards’s and Pelosi’s manner of speaking is more deliberative and wonky than traditionally charismatic, but their duet goes over well with the enthusiastic gaggle of supporters crowding the bakery — small-business owners, students and more than a few congressional staffers.
Edwards is in her home district, which covers much of Prince George’s County and a slice of Anne Arundel, and she speaks first. She says she wants more women to run and more women to lead. She tells her story: how she raised her son as a single mother while working and, later, won a long-shot congressional race. Edwards wants more women to do what she has done, to reinvent themselves and take a chance on politics.
But six years into her time on Capitol Hill, the chatter has turned to what’s next for Edwards. Like a good student, she raised her hand quickly to volunteer for committee work and, this year, took charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s efforts to recruit candidates, after serving as co-chair of the effort in 2012. She has become a pretty regular fixture on cable news and the still-coveted (at least in Washington) Sunday-morning political talk shows.
She spent this summer walking in Pelosi’s footsteps. The two women were central figures on a national bus tour, which Edwards helped to organize, that was intended to focus Democrats on issues of importance to women. It also gave Edwards plenty of face time with Pelosi. At a moment when their party has a glut of young, ambitious members vying for relatively few open spots in leadership, it doesn’t hurt to be friendly with the woman-in-charge.
And Edwards seems to have made a good impression.
Pelosi piles on the platitudes: “She is an exceptional leader in every way. . . . I take pride that she is from my home state of Maryland. . . . I have frankly never heard anyone say anything negative about her achievements and approach.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder at the Hyattsville bakery, they confidently connect with the crowd.
So, when Pelosi, 74, leaves the national stage — and don’t expect this anytime soon — will Edwards, 56, be the person left in the spotlight?
When National Journal wrote recently about the Democratic bench, it referred to a bunch of House legislators toiling in “areas outside of the spotlight, in the wings, a collection of competitive wannabes and understudies to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.” And the political mag listed Edwards alongside Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York; Jim Himes of Connecticut; and Jared Polis of Colorado. All three are involved with the DCCC, which is often a step toward rising within the party.
Edwards’s spot in the pack is aided by a solidly Democratic district and a compelling life story. Her father was in the military, and her experience bouncing from school to school fostered the kind of adaptable personality that helps in political life. Her childhood memories include family picnics on the Capitol lawn and watching Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) grill members of the Nixon White House during Watergate testimony. A childlike awe can sometimes flicker across Edwards’s eyes when she describes her love for Congress.
She went to law school in New Hampshire so she could be on the ground there during the 1988 presidential primary. When her son was heading to college, she ran for office and put her nonprofit career on hold.
In 2006, she lost the Democratic primary to incumbent Albert Wynn, who had served in Congress for more than a dozen years, by only a few thousand votes. Two years later, Edwards raised more money and took a different tack. When her opponent pointed out that she once had a tax lien on her home because of debts, she began talking about the dire straits she faced after divorce. She framed her experience as something that helped her relate to residents, who at the time faced high foreclosure rates.
With then-Sen. Barack Obama’s surge toward the presidency and the support of party liberals, she overtook Wynn and became the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress. As Democrats continue to build their multiracial coalition, that fact is key. Edwards is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, but she’s also co-chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus.
She plays in the annual congressional women’s softball game and was also recently the only woman to play on the congressional football team.
“It's flag football, rough flag,” says Edwards, flashing her toothy smile. She played middle linebacker.
The next Congress could include a record number of black women, with 20 projected to retain or win seats, according to Lauren Victoria Burke, a former staffer on Capitol Hill who writes a blog that covers African American members of Congress. It could serve Democrats to reflect that shift by elevating a black woman into its leadership.
Edwards is well positioned to be that woman, because she is partially responsible for the increase in the number of women running. She helped recruit some of them.
“Considering Democrats don’t have much of a chance to retake the House this year, the crop of Democratic candidates is pretty good,” says David Wasserman, a Cook Political report analyst. “That’s a credit to her.”
One of the candidates Edwards helped recruit is Ann Callis, a former chief judge in Illinois. Edwards made a swing through the state this summer to campaign with Callis, who is challenging a freshman Republican and is locked in a tight race. The two women talked before Callis made the decision to jump in.
“She was just wonderful in relating. You worry about the personal attacks. Both my children are grown now, but you just worry about the entirety of this new journey and the unknown,” says Callis, who notes that the congresswoman described her experiences in a comforting way.
One-on-one, and in smallish gatherings, Edwards is personable. She told Callis to call her if she ever wanted to talk through anything. The congresswoman, who is engaged to attorney Nelson Jones, has had to figure out how to guard her personal life as a public figure. Edwards can also be funny, cracking jokes about the ways in which constituents get absurdly distracted when she changes her hairstyle. Her sense of humor is one of the things Pelosi likes about her.
But before a large crowd, Edwards can become stiff and wooden, sticking too closely to her script. At times, this has been uncomfortable to watch. Edwards tried her hand at comedy at the Washington Press Club Foundation annual dinner this year and drew laughs with a pre-recorded video spoof of “Scandal,” casting herself as Olivia Pope. The live performance was a little dicier; her bawdy scripted jokes drew mostly silent cringing. The problem? Probably the way she described working together with a Republican colleague: “And when I mean together, I mean it in a Cialis commercial kind of way.”
Edwards may have missed pro tips on roasting the opposition, but she is savvy enough to demur when asked about her political aspirations. She's happy representing her district, she says.
Pelosi says “it’s really hard to tell” where Edwards goes from here. “We’ve not had that conversation, but she’s already achieved a status in the caucus, title or not, as a go-to person, a leader.”
It’s Pelosi who will handpick the next head of the party’s congressional campaign committee — the job that many in the party think Edwards has her eye on.
“She doesn’t have to make the case to anyone that she is a leader,” Pelosi continues, calling Edwards “operational and low-maintenance. What I mean when I say that is that’s a team player that you want.”
But the true barrier to further aspirations for Edwards in her party may have more to do with money than anything else.
A Democratic Party consultant points out that she isn’t a top fundraiser. As of the end of August, she had raised $206,000 for the DCCC’s midterm coffers — a modest sum compared to other party hotshots.
“The question for Donna is whether or not her poor fundraising is a result of an unwillingness to do it, or whether it’s because she is in a super-safe district and it’s not a priority for her, so she hasn’t cultivated the donors,” says the consultant, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about Edwards’s challenges.
In the early part of the summer, Edwards was feted by the Center for American Women and Politics on the campus of Rutgers University. She handed her purse to the young aide who’d come from Washington to escort her and spoke to a class prior to a reception in her honor and a keynote speech before hundreds of students. Pelosi had been on campus a few weeks earlier and also drew a crowd.
In her presentation before a couple of dozen students in the course on women’s public leadership, Edwards chatted easily with the class. It was clear she thinks a lot about the underrepresentation of women in politics.
“Why did it take you so long to run?” asked a young woman.
Edwards said she had a misconceptions that many women hold. She thought you had to be elected to get elected. Members of the Democratic Party’s establishment suggested that she run for local office rather than Congress.
“They said, ‘Why don’t you run for County Council?’ ” Edwards recalled. “If I would have listened to them, I would be like 80 years old by the time I could run for Congress.”
She seems to expect to have achieved higher heights by then.