Rep. Donna F. Edwards was beaming as she greeted supporters outside a Prince George’s County firehouse on a recent Friday, ready to regale another debate audience with her history as a single mother and her quest to diversify the U.S. Senate.
“Let me give you a hug!” Edwards gushed, wrapping her arms around a friend.
A few feet away, Edwards saw another familiar face: Dave Chapman, a neighborhood activist from her district. But Chapman, 74, was holding up a sign for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, her opponent in the bruising race to succeed Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“You’re never on my team, no matter what I do for you!” Edwards told Chapman, who reminded her that he had been among her first supporters when she won her House seat.
“But you never returned my calls,” Chapman said.
Edwards turned and kept walking, her smile locked in place.
As she seeks to become Maryland’s first African American senator, Edwards, 57, casts herself as an uncompromising progressive whose perspective as a black woman is needed in a Senate long dominated by white men. From women’s issues to income inequality, her impassioned oratory has endeared her to national progressive groups that have poured money into her campaign, narrowing Van Hollen’s early fundraising advantage.
More than 600,000 online viewers have watched her appearance last month on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” in which her biting defense of President Obama’s right to choose a new Supreme Court justice prompted comedian Sarah Silverman to shout, “Put this middle-aged black woman in the Senate right now!”
Yet for all her telegenic swagger, Edwards has roiled her Democratic colleagues, who chafe at what they describe as her brusque manner, sharp-elbowed tactics and poor management of her congressional office. In particular, they cite what they say is her failure to cater to the needs of her constituents.
“She’s focused on Washington, D.C., and Congress — and not on the areas she represents,” said Doyle Niemann, a former Maryland state delegate and Edwards supporter who is backing Van Hollen. “I’ve tried to get hold of her on different issues, and rarely do I get a real response.”
Edwards, in an interview, dismisses such criticism as manufactured by a political establishment that is largely aligned with Van Hollen and reflective of the outsider status she has cultivated during her Senate campaign.
“The way I came into politics is very different than the way they came into politics,” Edwards said. “Politics can be a little clubby. And I wasn’t part of the club.”
Although Maryland’s Democratic establishment has anointed Van Hollen as Mikulski’s successor, Edwards has her own supporters, a bandwagon that includes such national groups as Emily’s List and Democracy for America, which view her as an unyielding ally in their efforts to protect Social Security benefits and change campaign-finance laws.
Progressives first noticed Edwards in 2006 when, with little money, she nearly defeated then-Rep. Albert Wynn, a Prince George’s power broker whom she defined as a tool of corporate interests and criticized for voting to authorize the Iraq War.
Edwards defeated Wynn in a Democratic primary rematch two years later.
“It showed her determination and perseverance,” said Karren Pope-Onwukwe, a longtime ally. “She became entrenched in the community, and that’s what made the difference.”
Although she emphasized her experience as an activist during those campaigns, Edwards, who is divorced, now stresses her history as a single black mother, a strategy that her allies hope will draw African American voters in key areas including Baltimore and Prince George’s.
“Race does matter,” Edwards said during a recent debate. “It’s time that we had the ability to speak for ourselves.”
Her message seems to resonate with women such as Sherry James, a black nurse from Landover who nodded at the Prince George’s firehouse event when Edwards described her past struggles paying bills.
“Go ahead! Uh-huh,” James said as Edwards spoke. “She’s talking about my life! She’s real.”
Yet Edwards’s focus on race and gender also prompts criticism that she is pandering to black voters.
Artis Hampshire-Cowan, a black civic leader in Prince George’s who is a vice president at Howard University, said that Edwards’s candidacy “has pained me personally,” especially because her message sounds so different from when she ran against Wynn, who is also black.
“Now that she’s running for the Senate against a Caucasian, she’s wrapping herself in the sisterhood cloth,” said Hampshire-Cowan, a Van Hollen supporter. “It’s just race and gender, and I think we’re beyond it.”
State Del. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore), who is backing Edwards, said the focus on the congresswoman’s racial identity draws attention away from her more noteworthy attributes, including her career as an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
“What’s more interesting is her brilliance,” Carter said. “It’s her independent voice.”
On a recent Thursday, Edwards went table to table at a Kent County Democratic Party dinner on the Eastern Shore, posing for photos, commiserating about the tempestuous weather and dropping personal tidbits here and there.
“My mother says, ‘Donna — Everything you think, you wear on your face,’ ” Edwards told one woman. “I can’t help it.”
On another day, another audience learned that she loves shopping for vintage clothing (“Sometimes late at night on HGTV, I watch flea markets”) and of her interest in traveling to Mars (“If they just take me, that would be great”).
Mainly, though, Edwards sticks to her biographical narrative: the daughter of an Air Force officer who moved Edwards and her five siblings from base to base, including one in New Mexico, where her 11th-grade yearbook quoted her hope to go into law and “possibly” politics.
Her immediate ambition was to join the Air Force, she says, but “they wouldn’t let me fly.” Instead, she attended Wake Forest University and got her law degree at the University of New Hampshire.
Edwards was married in 1983 to Derek Lane Coleman, whom she met in college. They had their son, Jared, five years later.
The couple soon separated, and, for a time, Edwards’s financial struggles — she had accumulated massive student debt — forced her to move with her son to her mother’s house, live without health insurance or a car and get help from food pantries. Her failure to pay taxes over several years resulted in more than $9,000 in state and federal liens, all of which were later released.
Although she often alludes to her hardships in campaign appearances, Edwards said she has never liked discussing the period in detail. “It was a very emotionally debilitating thing,” she said. “I was totally embarrassed by it.”
At the time, she was building her career as a public-interest lawyer, co-founding the National Network to End Domestic Violence before becoming executive director of a foundation that handed out grants to progressive causes.
She first delved into Prince George’s politics — and bucked the county’s Democratic establishment — in the early 2000s, when she opposed the National Harbor project in southern Prince George’s.
Milton Peterson, the project’s developer, referred to Edwards and her fellow activists at the time as “hornets” after they filed a lawsuit against the project. They dropped the suit when Peterson agreed to add residential units and a biking and hiking trail along the Potomac River.
Six years later, as a new member of Congress, Edwards bought a $539,000 condominium at National Harbor, which delighted such detractors as former state senator Gloria Lawlah, a project proponent.
“It’s an acknowledgment that we were right and she was dead wrong,” Lawlah said, chuckling.
Edwards countered that the community’s opposition forced Peterson to turn National Harbor into a place she wanted to live.
“I love it,” she said of her home and its river view. “I feel really proud of what we did.”
Edwards found that her power to force change was far more limited as a member of the minority party in Congress. As an example of her legislative accomplishments, she often cites a measure to add Maryland to the states that serve after-school supper to students.
At the Capitol, the congresswoman is mainly known as a partisan Democrat advocating “a broad populist and progressive framework,” said Norman Ornstein of the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute. “But she’s not known as one of those who focuses on the details of policy.”
What she is notorious for is roiling Democratic colleagues.
In 2011, she opposed the redistricting plan by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), which stripped her of the part of her district that included Montgomery County and gave her Anne Arundel County.
Although her detractors have accused her of acting out of self-interest, Edwards insisted that O’Malley’s plan harmed black voters because it concentrated their power in just a few districts.
“Give her credit for speaking out against a gerrymandering plan that hurt minorities,” said Doug Duncan, the former Montgomery county executive, who is backing Edwards. “She impressed me as someone who speaks her mind and doesn’t worry about the consequences.”
Even as she emphasizes her racial identity, the political action committee behind the Congressional Black Caucus declined to endorse Edwards. The PAC’s board tabled a vote on the endorsement after learning that two prominent black leaders — Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett — were supporting Van Hollen (Albert Wynn is among the board’s 21 voting members).
Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George’s state senator who backed Edwards over Wynn, said her relationship with Edwards died after the congresswoman summoned her to a meeting and “wanted to berate me” for not opposing O’Malley’s redistricting plan.
“I’ve been in politics since 1965 and never been so disrespected,” Benson said.
Edwards described Benson’s account as “absolutely a fiction.”
“I have not berated anybody,” she said.
Others have wanted Edwards to pay closer attention to their interests.
The Maryland affiliates of the Service Employees International Union dropped Edwards after supporting her in other races because “members were reaching out to her office and weren’t getting any responses,” said Pat Lippold, political director for the state’s health-care union. And the union representing 8,000 NASA workers has criticized Edwards for not responding sufficiently when it complained about racial disparities at the agency.
When Van Hollen mentions the criticism, Edwards cites her endorsements from unions such as those representing bricklayers, nurses and transit workers. She has denied the NASA union’s claim.
Chapman, the neighborhood activist from Prince George’s who is backing Van Hollen, said he abandoned Edwards after she ignored his repeated requests for assistance on behalf of people he knew, including an unemployed veteran trying to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The only time I’d see her was around election time,” he said.
Edwards insists that her staff provides “really good” constituent service, assisting residents in foreclosure cases and organizing such events as an annual college fair.
Asked about her often-contentious relationships with Democratic colleagues, Edwards pointed out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has put her on her leadership team and that she has headed groups including the House Democratic Women’s Caucus.
“Somebody’s got to like me,” Edwards said.
For better or worse, the congresswoman acknowledged, her style is not to “sugarcoat things.”
“I’m very direct. I’m very precise,” she said. “I get to the heart of the matter.”