Angela D. Alsobrooks is the only woman ever elected state’s attorney in Prince George’s County. Donna F. Edwards is the only black woman ever elected to Congress from Maryland.
Now the two Democrats are vying to become Prince George’s first female county executive, generating strong support in a county where women have long been politically active and economically successful but say they still have been held back from center stage.
“It’s our time,” said Mary Hopkins Navies, a well-known Prince George’s business owner who is backing Alsobrooks.
Charly Carter, a Baltimore activist who supports Edwards, called the candidacies of two such highly accomplished women “a real bright spot for the state.”
Prince George’s, among the wealthiest majority-black jurisdictions in the country, is also one of seven jurisdictions nationwide in which women earn more than men, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust. Women represent 55 percent of active registered voters in the county, and nearly 80 percent of its public-school teachers.
But they have long been absent from top positions in fields including law, education and state government, Alsobrooks said. Former state senator Gloria G. Lawlah, an Alsobrooks supporter, noted that she is one of just two women ever elected to that position from Prince George’s, which has seven senators in its Annapolis delegation.
“The women have carried this community, but we haven’t had our voices heard,” said Alsobrooks, the county’s top prosecutor since 2010.
She and Edwards, a progressive who served four terms in Congress, are leading the field in terms of fundraising and endorsements. The other candidates competing in the June 26 primary — which in heavily Democratic Prince George’s is tantamount to winning the election — are state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, former Obama administration official Paul Monteiro, former lieutenant governor Samuel W. Bogley III, Lewis S. Johnson, Billy Bridges, Michael E. Kennedy and Tommie Thompson.
Muse, a longtime lawmaker and pastor, also has deep ties in the county and dedicated supporters, including many women. He said the race will pivot not on gender but on who can best stand up to developers and the political establishment, which both he and Edwards are campaigning against.
“This election is about the fact that people are frustrated, and everyone feels they have no power or say,” Muse said.
He noted that he has pushed for legislation in Annapolis that addresses women’s priorities, including bills to close the wage gap and improve services for domestic-violence victims.
The candidacies of Alsobrooks and Edwards have taken on special resonance in some circles during the volatile #MeToo era, as sexual harassment is being debated in Annapolis and other state capitals, and an unprecedented number of women nationwide are seeking public office.
Maryland has no women in its congressional delegation or top statewide elected positions. There is only one woman in the crowded field of Democrats vying to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in November. Montgomery County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, has also never been led by a woman, and five of the six Democrats vying to succeed longtime County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) are men.
Lawlah helped organize an April luncheon at which more than 1,000 women gathered to support Alsobrooks — the first time, the former senator said, that so many women had rallied in Maryland to support a female candidate.
“We are making history,” she said.
Karren Pope-Onwukwe, an attorney in Hyattsville who is backing Edwards, called the former congresswoman a voice for progressive women who have not always been heard by the county’s more moderate Democratic establishment.
“We know she is going to have our back and fight for what will help the community,” Pope-Onwukwe said.
Both Alsobrooks and Edwards are members of African American sororities — Alsobrooks is a Delta Sigma Theta, and Edwards is a Zeta Phi Beta — whose members have been active in the campaigns. The lunch for Alsobrooks last month included a sea of women wearing Delta’s traditional crimson and cream.
Neither Alsobrooks, 47, nor Edwards, 59, spend much time on the trail discussing their personal stories as single, working mothers. During forums, they address education, paid family leave and domestic violence, but spend the bulk of their time speaking about their goals for the county in broader terms.
“I don’t think when people here see me, they see a female politician,” Alsobrooks said. “I hope they see that I’m effective, that I do a good job, and that’s the reason to elect me — not because I’m a woman.”
Edwards said her campaign for county executive is focused “on vision — it’s not about gender.”
Still, both candidates say being a woman has informed their experiences, how they would govern and, at times, how they have been treated. Alsobrooks is one of four female state’s attorneys in Maryland, out of 24 jurisdictions. She said she has sometimes been underestimated by male colleagues, including once years ago when she pushed for the death penalty in a case involving the murder of two children, and a colleague said, “Oh Angela, let’s not be emotional.”
She said she did not hesitate in her reply: “If you don’t feel anything upon hearing that a 3- and 4-year-old were executed, then this is the wrong line of work for you.”
During Edwards’s unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 2016, she spoke frequently about being a single black mother, telling voters she would bring diversity to the overwhelmingly white, male Senate chamber.
When she lost in the primary to Chris Van Hollen, who won the seat, she suggested that the Maryland Democratic Party 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.
Carter, the former executive director of Maryland Working Families, speculated that one reason the candidates are not talking more about their perspective as women in this campaign is lasting sexism in politics.
“If women stick up for issues that help women and families, then it’s gender politics,” she said. “When a man is working on behalf of issues that he’s interested in, then it’s never gender politics — it’s just politics.”