This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to represent Maryland’s 4th Congressional District.
The telephone number listed on Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk’s campaign material connects directly to her mobile phone, which rarely leaves her hand as she drives from suburban Maryland to Annapolis in her lime-green-and-blue Toyota Prius.
From her days as a public defender to her first political job on the College Park City Council, accessibility — and a willingness to challenge authority — has always been the cornerstone of Peña-Melnyk’s public service.
Now she is bringing that up-close-and-personal approach to her long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D).
Peña-Melnyk, 49, lacks the establishment support of her two top competitors. So she is trying to build her own network — one voter at a time.
[Five things about Joseline Peña-Melnyk]
“I bring a perspective that no one has here — as a woman, as an immigrant, as someone who never had it easy,” Peña-Melnyk said at a recent forum. “I am passionate, I fight hard. . . . I will take a stand when it’s not popular. ”
Born in the Dominican Republic, Peña-Melnyk arrived in New York on a visa with her mother and sister when she was 8 years old. The girls soon returned home to stay with their grandparents for several years so their mother could get established.
Back in New York, Peña-Melnyk found herself translating at the state welfare office for her mother, who was trying to get benefits to augment her garment-factory pay. Eventually, the teenager started doing the same for other Spanish-speaking families in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
“She had no fear of talking to people when things were bad,” said Peña-Melnyk’s sister, Yuberky Peña.
Her mother called her “la abogadita,” or the little lawyer, because she could be both stubborn and argumentative.
After one particularly bad disagreement, Peña-Melnyk moved out, staying with friends and renting a room for the last few months of high school. She reconciled with her mother before heading upstate to Buffalo for college and law school.
She paid her way through school with a series of retail jobs, earning enough to help support her younger sister, who became a mother while a teenager and moved in with Peña-Melnyk in Buffalo after her children’s father was killed.
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Peña-Melnyk also volunteered at a shelter for battered women while in college. During law school, she interned for a nonprofit legal organization documenting the working conditions of migrant farmworkers in Ohio. At one point, while taking photos of the workers, she was threatened at gunpoint by a farmer.
“We ran; we literally, physically ran,” Peña-Melnyk said. “It was amazing what they were willing to do to cover up and made me realize how important the work we were doing was.”
Peña-Melnyk began her legal career in the public defender’s office in Philadelphia but moved to Washington to join her then-fiance, Markian Melnyk, after failing the bar exam.
She passed the test in 1993 and became a court-appointed defense attorney and an advocate for foster children and abused children in D.C. Superior Court. After spending time in private practice, Peña-Melnyk joined the U.S. attorney’s office as a prosecutor.
In 1999, after the first of her three children was born, Peña-Melnyk left the courtroom. But she stayed involved in public life, joining the board of the immigration rights group CASA of Maryland and winning a seat on the College Park City Council in 2003.
Friends say Peña-Melnyk is known for getting personally involved in helping people — driving high school students to college fairs, finding shelter for women who need it, taking neighbors to medical appointments.
“She doesn’t just refer them to an agency,” said Suchitra Balachandran, an environmental activist who is close to Peña-Melnyk. “I often tell her that she can’t make everything a personal mission, but this is how she functions and will continue to function.”
In 2006, Peña-Melnyk defeated several establishment candidates to win an open seat in the Maryland House of Delegates representing District 21, which includes northern Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties.
“People told me I couldn’t win,” she recalls with a smile.
She is considered an underdog in the race in the 4th Congressional District, which covers most of Prince George’s and parts of Anne Arundel. It includes both the immigrant-rich neighborhoods that are her base but also many predominantly African American or non-Hispanic white areas, where her Caribbean accent and background are less familiar.
Peña-Melnyk, whose home in College Park is just outside the district, has sponsored more than 50 bills in Annapolis, each of which is framed and displayed on the walls of her State House office.
She helped pass laws that digitized medical records and provided mental health training at schools, and she led a years-long fight to pass a bill prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity, which became law in 2014.
At times, her progressive stance has put her at odds with Democratic legislative leaders. Peña-Melnyk says she is okay with that.
“I decided a long time ago to make decisions after consulting with constituents,” she said. “When my head hits the pillow, I have to be comfortable with my vote.”
Next: Terence Strait.
Read the other candidate profiles:
Former lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown
Army veteran Warren Christopher
Former U.S. marshal Matthew Fogg