WASHINGTON ― Former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) welcomed a reporter into her apartment, which overlooks the Potomac River in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, on a warm winter morning.
“How long do you have?” I asked.
“I have all the time in world,” Edwards responded with a chuckle. “I’m not in Congress anymore.”
Edwards, 58, made a bid last year to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The four-term congresswoman entered that primary as the underdog ― most of the Democratic establishment was backing Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Van Hollen went on to win both the primary and the general, which means that now the woman who was recently seen as the future of the Democratic Party doesn’t have a lot going on.
Edwards describes herself as “an accidental politician.” She was the class president in 11th grade, but any thoughts of a political career were mostly about working for, and helping elect, other people.
The first time she ran for Congress was in 2006, challenging Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.), who had represented Maryland’s 4th District for eight terms, in the primary. Wynn was Edwards’ former boss, and he had voted with Republicans on issues such as the the Iraq War. Edwards came at him from the left, using her bona fides as a progressive activist and civil rights leader ready to fight the machine. She lost ― but by just 3 percentage points.
She roared back two years later, pulling off a primary win over Wynn that The Washington Post described as “stunning.” Wynn resigned, effective a few months later, and Edwards won both the special election to fill the seat and the general election in November, becoming the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in Congress. It wasn’t an easy entry; many black House members had been closely allied with Wynn, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
But Edwards brought a compelling backstory and progressive cred to the House. She was a military brat who attended Wake Forest University, and was one of only six black women in her undergraduate class. She got her law degree at the University of New Hampshire and went on to serve at Lockheed on NASA’s Spacelab project, first as a technical writer and then managing a team of engineers. She was also the first executive director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
She was also a single mom, and was open about her financial and emotional struggles when her son was young.
“Juggling bills and putting food on the table really shaped how I thought about what I wanted to do in Congress,” Edwards said.
That experience inspired her first piece of legislation, a measure in an appropriations bill to provide after-school meals for low-income kids. “It’s not that other members of the Maryland delegation thought that students should go hungry, it’s just that no one had ever thought about it,” she recalled.
Edwards was rarely shy about bucking the Democratic establishment. She broke with other Maryland Democrats in 2012 when she endorsed wealthy businessman John Delaney for one of Maryland’s House seats instead of Rob Garagiola, a close ally of then-House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). This was viewed as a direct shot at Hoyer and the powers in control at the State House in Annapolis.
In 2011, she raised some eyebrows for joining Republicans who opposed a redistricting plan from her state’s Democratic governor that would have netted Democrats another seat in the House but likely cost her a portion of her district.
“I’ve been described as too aggressive,” Edwards said. “I don’t know what that means when it comes to fighting for your community. I see things and I call them as I see them. I think there’s little tolerance in the political frame for people who are direct and say what they mean.”
That perception certainly seemed to weigh on Edwards’ Senate bid last year. One Maryland elected official told HuffPost on background that some members of the Maryland political establishment were happy when she announced her Senate bid, because they saw it as their chance to get her out of the House.
Edwards’ primary matchup against Van Hollen became one of the most heated Democratic contests in the nation. Van Hollen was seen as Maryland’s golden boy; many insiders saw him as a potential successor to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
Most in the political establishment threw their money and support behind Van Hollen. Heading into their April primary, the Van Hollen campaign had over $4 million in contributions to Edwards’ nearly $1 million. Even the White House stepped in at one point, calling a gun control ad from a super PAC supporting Edwards “misleading” and demanding it be taken down. EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports Democratic pro-choice women, endorsed Edwards ― but then accused Van Hollen of going after its donors.
Although Hoyer, the second-highest-ranking House Democrat, did not officially support either candidate, his allegiance was to Van Hollen. In an interview with Capital News Service, Hoyer said, “Congresswoman Edwards obviously has herself been active in a number of different areas, but not as pointedly as Chris Van Hollen because he had a position as ranking member on the budget committee.” He also said Van Hollen was “a real expert” in health care, investing in education, public safety and transportation.
One state delegate told HuffPost that they “got a lot of pushback” if they wanted to support Edwards: “There was very much a lot of intention by the powers that be in the General Assembly.” In some parts of the state, there was a divide between the party establishment and voters; in Prince George’s County, seven out of eight senators supported Van Hollen, but Edwards went on to win the county with over 60 percent.
The vast majority of the Congressional Black Caucus also refused to endorse Edwards. CBC PAC leadership is made up of current and former black lawmakers ― including her former rival Al Wynn. Only a handful of the CBC PAC’s 46-member board publicly endorsed Edwards.
“I think it’s shameful, frankly, that the CBC PAC did not endorse me,” Edwards said. “I thought it was shameful then, and I still think it is.”
Edwards has said she felt discounted and at times ostracized by her own party ― especially after Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told The Associated Press that he thought the race was a question of “whether the people of Maryland want somebody who can be effective, or somebody who’s going to bask in her own feelings of moral superiority because of various and sundry factors, and effectiveness has nothing to do with it.”
“I thought the Republican Party was full of dog whistles but the Democratic Party has a foghorn,” Edwards told reporters after that remark. “As a sitting member of the House as the ranking Democrat on one of our committees in the House, as the co-chair of our steering and policy committee sitting at the leadership table with Leader Pelosi, as former chair of the bipartisan women’s caucus, a lawyer: How dare they describe me as unqualified?”
But Edwards also used that outsider status as a striking point. When Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. told The Washington Post that he believed Van Hollen was “born to the job,” Edwards fired off a pointed fundraising email. “The fact is, our country’s systems and institutions have largely been led by people who have always looked like that senior elected official, not like me,” she wrote. “I don’t believe anyone in this country was born to anything.”
Edwards knew her approach was always a risky one. “Our structures, whether they’re Democrat or Republican party structures, don’t like outsiders,” Edwards said.
The combativeness has also won her allies, though. “Donna has always been very true to things she believes in and the people who she’s fighting for,” said Maryland state Del. Angela Angel (D). Edwards supported her on state legislation to change the definition of abuse to include harassment and malicious destruction of property when many other Democrats in the state didn’t. “Very rarely when people said why they weren’t supporting her, it was very rarely on her stance on issues. A lot of it seemed [to be based on] her personality.”
“Ultimately it’s not just that she’s an African-American woman,” said Prince George’s County school board member Edward Burroughs III. “It’s that she’s an African-American woman who will vote her conscience, that will do whatever she believes in. Whenever you have that sort of combination, that makes it very difficult for one to advance.”
“The good old boy network has no problem with elevating an obedient African-American woman that does what she is told to do,” he continued. “That is not Congresswoman Donna Edwards.”
While Edwards lost the primary bid, she did lead among voters under age 44 and those making less than $50,000 a year, which she’s pointed to as signs that Democratic voters are shifting, with or without the establishment. And despite her rocky experience in the party, Edwards says she will continue to help bring young people with unique backgrounds into politics ― “young people who aren’t part of the normal structure to be able to run for and be elected into office.”
After her primary race, she campaigned and worked the polls for three young people running for school board seats in Prince George’s County, including Raaheela Ahmed, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who won one of the board seats.
Ahmed said it was “incredibly empowering” having Edwards’ support on the campaign trail. “We had a really good conversation about what it means to be an effective leader as minorities, as women,” Ahmed said. “That really spoke volumes to me. It helped propel me and continue moving on.”
Edwards said young people like Ahmed or the other two board candidates ― David Murray, 24, and Edward Burroughs III, 24 ― are exactly what the Democratic party needs to rebuild itself. The party needs to “wrap itself around the idea that it needs to be more inclusive, not just in its language,” Edwards said. “We want those same people at the table as decision-makers. That’s a completely different thing than having somebody make good decisions for you.”
There were many articles written after President Donald Trump’s election about how the Democratic Party should move forward, many of which suggested the party should focus on the white working class. Edwards said that would be a “grave mistake.”
There are now 38 minority women in Congress. Edwards said they need to “make their own mark and not to be pigeonholed or boxed.”
“I think that for women of color especially, that too many people want to put you in a certain kind of box and that you can only care about issues of poverty or gender,” she said. “Be passionate about the things that you’re passionate about and work for them.”
She says she’s not dwelling on her loss, or resentful about her time in Washington. She’s planning her next adventure.
“I have an RV I’m getting in and I’ll be traveling all around the country for about three months, camping and hiking and meeting people at national parks,” she said. “I want to create a podcast and maybe a blog.”
There’s been plenty of chatter about what office she might run for next. Edwards says another political bid is not out of the question, but it’s not on her mind at the moment: “I’ve been told I’m running for so many things, but right now I’m running to my RV.”