The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chelsea Manning: ‘The establishment needs to be challenged.’

Former Army Private Chelsea Manning at her home in Rockville, Md., on Jan. 26.
Former Army Private Chelsea Manning at her home in Rockville, Md., on Jan. 26. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Chelsea Manning stepped out of prison last spring into a world that she recognized only from her dystopian nightmares.

In New York City, she noticed an overwhelming number of heavily armed police. It reminded her of what she describes as the suppression of protests around President Trump's inauguration a few months earlier, and riots after the 2016 Freddie Gray incident, in which Gray was fatally injured in police custody in Baltimore. By summer, her attention — and the world's — shifted to Charlottesville, where a white-supremacist rally to protest the removal of a Confederate statue turned deadly.

"This is not the home I expected to come home to," said Manning, 30, the transgender former Army private who spent seven years in federal custody for passing classified government documents to WikiLeaks. "This is another prison. . . . I need to figure out how we're going to survive it."

Her answer, for now, is to run for U.S. Senate against Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), the 74-year-old two-term lawmaker and senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Cardin is the overwhelming favorite in the June 26 primary. Manning is determined to wage an insurgent campaign, eschewing corporate or PAC money and pushing for "radical change" in criminal justice, education and health care.

"The establishment needs to be challenged, and it needs to be challenged in their footholds and in the places where they feel safe," she said during an interview in the sun-filled living room of her Rockville, Md., apartment.

A framed copy of President Barack Obama's order commuting her 35-year sentence hangs above the mantel, flanked by photos of anarchist Emma Goldman and playwright Oscar Wilde, both of whom faced imprisonment.

Chelsea E. Manning, who served time in prison for leaking classified documents, is challenging Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) in the June Democratic primary. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Hers is a battle in the mold of progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donna F. Edwards (D), who lost primaries in Maryland in 2016 to establishment Democrats: presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Both Sanders and Edwards, who is now running for Prince George's County executive, gained a left-wing following during their campaigns. Manning hopes to do the same.

"This isn't about criminal justice reform," she said, "it's about criminal justice restructuring. We need to start closing prisons. We need to start releasing prisoners."

The Affordable Care Act, pilloried by conservatives as government overreach, didn't go far enough, in Manning's opinion.

She supports free, "no questions asked" health care for all but said making that happen is a "matter of debate for legislative purposes."

Asked how to pay for it, she said: "Look at the defense budget. We're spending almost $600 billion a year on weapons of war."

For all her renegade tactics, Manning also is employing a well-worn approach to early campaigning: seeking advice from community groups in "listening sessions."

In the two weeks since her campaign got a surprise jump-start when a conservative blog tweeted her federal filing form, she said, 1,000 individual donors have contributed. (Fundraising reports are due Wednesday.)

The team consists of Manning, a communications director, an operations director and a finance director. Each has an equal say in decision-making, she said.

Her campaign slogan: "#WeGotThis."

That slogan was her mantra in prison, Manning said, a way to keep up her morale.

"Any rational person would say we didn't have a chance, but we kept fighting and we kept going even though we couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

While Manning's trans identity links her to a wave of LGBT candidates running in 2018, she said her experiences behind bars, deployments to Iraq in 2009 and 2010, and the months she spent homeless and adrift in Chicago in 2006 give her credibility in the race.

"I'm trans and I bring some experience to the table, but this isn't about that," she said.

Living with an aunt in Maryland before enlisting in the Army, she worked at a Starbucks and the Abercrombie & Fitch store at Westfield Montgomery Mall, and took classes at the University of Maryland University College and Montgomery College, she said.

During Army breaks she returned to Maryland, maintaining residency there until she entered prison in 2010.

She expresses no regrets about leaking a trove of confidential documents and said criticism that she is an "American traitor" rings hollow today.

"In a society where people can call Hillary Clinton, James B. Comey — anybody that you disagree with politically becomes a traitor, then we can't have a debate," she said.

"Given the circumstances that I was in and everything that I knew at the time, I did what I felt was the right decision to make. I can't go back and change that," she said.

She says her intelligence know-how would be an asset in the Senate, especially when privacy issues are debated.

Pointing to congressional reauthorization last week of the warrantless surveillance program, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, she said: "We need someone to push back against this machine so that we can dismantle it, so that we can stop living in fear."