Another top Democrat has endorsed Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland’s U.S. Senate primary, a signal that his support within the party’s establishment may trump Rep. Donna F. Edwards’s appeal in her home county and perhaps among some female and black voters.
State Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D) on Monday introduced Van Hollen (D), who is white, to a group of 150 mostly African American retirees whose support she counts on in her own campaigns, asking them to consider his bid to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D).
“It’s not about race, creed or color,” Benson, who is black, told the crowd at the fellowship hall of St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in Capitol Heights, a struggling neighborhood in Edwards’s home district in Prince George’s County. With the fervor of a preacher during a revival, Benson accentuated every syllable as her voice crescendoed: “It’s about a person.”
Benson’s support signals Van Hollen’s strength among longtime Democratic colleagues with whom he built relationships over many years in the state legislature and in Congress — including those from Edwards’s home community of Prince George’s. That could pose a challenge for Edwards, who is trying to position herself as a champion among working families, including those in Prince George’s.
Benson’s group was founded nearly two decades ago to help organize residents in the predominantly African American neighborhoods along the Prince George’s border with the District and inside the Capital Beltway. These communities have battled crime and underdevelopment for decades, and boast some of the highest concentrations of poverty.
While Edwards, who is also African American, lives in Prince George’s and has experienced personal economic hardship, Benson argued that Van Hollen is better positioned to provide help.
“He understands Prince George’s County,” Benson told the group. “Not only does he understand but he has the good sense to find the resources to deliver. . . . I want you to support a person who has a track record of getting things done and who has the ability to win friends and influence people.”
The group listened as Van Hollen described his long working relationship with Benson, who has represented the district since 1991 and earned a reputation as a champion for constituents there.
The two served together in the Maryland General Assembly, where Van Hollen was first a delegate and later a state senator. As a Montgomery County elected official, Benson said, he unselfishly worked with Prince George’s officials to secure more equitable state funding for schools.
As a congressman, Van Hollen has also represented parts of northwestern Prince George’s, cultivating relationships with the leaders he now calls on to win support in his statewide bid for elected office. Benson said the congressman was always responsive when she called for help. The relationship with Edwards, she said, was less amiable.
“Let me be honest, we have not been able to have the kind of working relationship with the congresslady that we really truly desired,” Benson said.
Though Edwards would be the first African American senator from Maryland and the only black woman in the Senate, Benson said she does not see the historic nature of Edwards’s campaign influencing the minds of voters.
“You will see African American women stepping up to the plate to support Chris Van Hollen,” Benson said. “We are not going to deal with this race issue.”
Even as she dismissed race and gender as a factor in the race, Benson noted how close Van Hollen is to President Obama. The comment elicited cheers from the group of senior citizens, many of whom, Benson said, marched for civil rights.
To many who were present, Obama’s presidency is the fulfillment of the promise of the American dream. In the hallway leading to the gathering place, a hand-drawn portrait reimagines Mount Rushmore sculpted with the faces of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Obama.
Benson echoed King’s own words to support Van Hollen: “We need to look at the content of the character of the individual. . . . We are looking for somebody who has the fire in their belly to serve.”
Older African Americans are a crucial Democratic bloc in vote-rich Prince George’s, consistently heading to the ballot box in large numbers and swaying electoral outcomes for a succession of county politicians, both black and white.
Edwards was never one of those politicians — and that may yet serve to her advantage. The first elected office she held was in Congress, and she got there by taking out an incumbent who was a veteran of the county establishment.
Since that upset, she has cast herself as David battling against Goliath.
Van Hollen, by contrast, has ties in the state’s political establishment that are strong enough to transcend geography and race. Early in the race, he won the support of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, and he has since regularly rolled out endorsements from all over Maryland. Several more Prince George’s lawmakers endorsed Van Hollen on Monday, following a group from Baltimore and Howard counties. His far-reaching connections probably helped him win a straw poll in rural Maryland this weekend.
“Endorsements create a sense of momentum, endorsements help you raise money, endorsements help you build your operation in parts of the state that you don’t have an operation,” said a strategist close to Van Hollen, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the race.
Van Hollen announced in April that he had already raised more than $1 million, emphasizing that three-quarters of that total came from within Maryland.
Edwards raised $335,228 in the same time period, with far more of her funds coming from outside the state. Another fundraising quarter ends in seven days, when she will be under greater pressure to prove her financial readiness for an expensive statewide race. She traveled to Chicago earlier this month to woo EMILY’s List donors, and the liberal Jewish group J Street is also helping her raise funds.
“One of the primary themes in this race is a concerted effort from Congressman Van Hollen to rebrand his record and play politics instead of standing on principle,” said Edwards spokesman Benjamin Gerdes. “His voting record is not where Maryland’s middle-class families are, and he thinks endorsements give him cover and credibility in local communities.”
Individual endorsements rarely have an impact in campaigns, said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland — unless the endorser has “a true and connected network” that is politically engaged.
Calvin Miles, 74, of Capitol Heights, said Benson’s endorsement carries significant weight among residents who have long supported the senator. At the same time, he said, he hasn’t made up his mind.
“It’s too early,” he said. “I’m going to pick based on which is the best one.”