Second in a series of profiles of the top candidates for Prince George’s County executive.
When Donna F. Edwards was studying for the bar exam, she could afford review classes but did not have enough money to pay for a sitter for her toddler. Determined to pass, she came up with a solution: forgo the class, buy review books and study in a park — her son on a blanket at her side.
Her supporters say that sort of persistence has defined Edwards as she has gone from local activism to Congress to a failed bid for Senate and, now, to the race to become Prince George’s County’s next county executive.
“It was just a reality,” Edwards said of her years balancing her career, being a single mother and paying off nearly $100,000 in student loans.
She is competing primarily with State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks and state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s) in the race to succeed Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is term-limited and running for governor. Six other minimally funded candidates are also running in the June 26 primary — which in heavily Democratic Prince George’s is tantamount to winning the election: former Obama administration official Paul Monteiro, former lieutenant governor Samuel W. Bogley III, Lewis S. Johnson, Billy Bridges, Michael E. Kennedy and Tommie Thompson.
Edwards, 59, graduated from Wake Forest University and worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center before attending the University of New Hampshire’s law school. After passing the bar, she returned to Maryland and got her start in activism.
“I asked myself, ‘Donna, where is your passion?’ ” she said in an interview. “It was in the public interest.”
She worked at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, and co-founded the National Network to End Domestic Violence. In the early 2000s, she and other Prince George’s activists filed a lawsuit opposing the National Harbor project. Edwards, who now lives at National Harbor, dropped the suit when the developer agreed to add residential units and a biking and hiking trail along the Potomac River.
Edwards has frequently been a thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment. She defeated longtime congressman Albert Wynn (D) in 2008 but gave up the seat after four terms to challenge then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic Senate primary. Van Hollen won easily.
Her critics chafe at her sharp-
elbowed tactics and cite complaints about poor constituent services in her congressional office as evidence she is not ready to lead the county. Edwards has said her staff provided “really good” constituent services.
“I’ve known Donna for most of my life, and I’ve never known her to be different than she is today,” said Valerie Ervin, a close friend who is running for Maryland governor. “If she rubs people the wrong way, it’s because she knows what to do and how to do it.”
Hyattsville lawyer Karren Pope-Onwukwe said Edwards does what she believes is right even when it is not politically expedient — such as her initial opposition to the successful MGM National Harbor casino. “This is not a popularity contest,” Pope-Onwukwe said.
In Congress, Edwards pushed for more investment in historically black colleges, and to protect women’s reproductive rights, Social Security and Medicare. As a Senate candidate, she spoke frequently about being a black, single mother and the need for diversity in the overwhelmingly white, male chamber.
When she lost, she suggested that the Democrats had sidelined women and people of color. “When will our voices be effective, legitimate equal leaders in a big-tent party?” she said in a fiery concession speech.
Edwards was the first black woman elected to Congress from Maryland and would be the first female county executive in Prince George’s. But she says this race is focused “on vision — it’s not about gender.”
She wants to develop an “innovation economy,” focused on science and technology start-up businesses and cut administrative costs in schools to free up resources for teachers. She called months ago for the ouster of Prince George’s schools chief Kevin Maxwell, who is stepping down after the end of the school year.
Edwards won’t take campaign contributions from developers, which she says demonstrates her independence from moneyed interests. But she is strongly backed by unions, which have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent super PAC supporting her campaign.
She was four days late filing her most recent fundraising report, which showed her with less money than Alsobrooks. Most of her donations came from outside Prince George’s.
As a candidate, she has said little about her multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with two years ago. In a statement, she said: “My own experience fuels and inspires me every day on the campaign trail, especially because access to affordable healthcare is under attack by the Trump Administration.”
When Edwards left Congress, she spent three months traveling through 27 states in a recreational vehicle, talking to people about their concerns for the future. Progressive groups and labor unions began urging her to run for county executive. Eventually, she decided to do it.
To her critics, Edwards — who regularly appears on CNN and MSNBC talk shows and tweets about President Trump — seems more interested in national politics than local concerns. But Edwards says Prince George’s needs a leader who is aware of the national political climate and able to help separate the county’s economy from the federal landscape.
“It’s precisely because of my activism in national politics that people understand me to be someone who understands the connective tissue between what happens nationally and the implications locally,” she said.
Next: County executive candidate and state Sen. C. Anthony Muse.