Donna Edwards revels in outsider approach to politics

"She will not allow herself to be told what to do," Valerie Ervin says of Donna Edwards.

Years before Rep. Donna F. Edwards took her seat in the House of Representatives, she and a small group of advocates trudged through the halls of Capitol Hill in search of any lawmaker who would listen to a message that wasn't easy to hear.

Bill text in hand, Edwards marched from office to office to sell members on the idea that domestic violence had become so pervasive it required a federal response — that Congress, in other words, had to do something.

"We were just so rough around the edges; we really did not know how to get anything done," said Debby Tucker, a longtime advocate on the issue who worked with Edwards to help pass the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. "But we were burning with the desire to get something done."

Edwards, 57, a Prince George's County lawmaker first elected in 2008, has long pushed for change as an outsider. That was the case when she advocated for the domestic violence law, which provided funding to help victims, and it is now a central message of her campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat.

The Oxon Hill woman does not have support from many elected officials in the state, or in Washington. But Edwards is comfortable with that — she notes frequently that many Democratic power brokers also wrote off Barbara A. Mikulski when she first ran for Senate in 1986.

Edwards and Rep. Chris Van Hollen are now seeking Mikulski's seat in what has become among the most closely watched Senate primaries in the nation.

"For me, at least, she's a refreshing change from inside politics, and from business as usual," said Kweisi Mfume, the former congressman and NAACP leader, who recently endorsed Edwards. "Over and over again she's been knocked down, and she continues to get up."

What Edwards offers is a perspective she says is sorely lacking in the Senate — that of a single mother, an African-American woman, a person who knows the sting of supplementing a trip to the grocery store with help from a food bank.

Around the time she was attending law school, Edwards lost, in rapid succession, her car, her job and her marriage. She and her son — he was about 3 at the time — moved into her mother's home.

Later, when she suspected her son was behind in reading, she skipped a mortgage payment to pay to have him tested. Jared had a visual spatial disorder that was delaying his learning.

He turned out fine. But the experiences shaped her public life.

"A number of things at inconvenient times can really send you to the brink," Edwards told The Baltimore Sun. "I wouldn't really tell anyone about it because it was just really embarrassing."

Sometimes that background has been boiled down on the campaign trail to a racial message: After all, it's easier to note Edwards would be the first African-American to represent Maryland in the Senate, and only the second black woman to serve in that chamber's history.

Van Hollen has questioned Edwards' claim to the outsider mantle. Edwards has served eight years in the House and was promoted to a top position with the House Democrats' campaign operation — a group Van Hollen once chaired —two years ago.

He has also openly doubted her practical effectiveness, using television ads to suggest she has pitched herself as a tea-party-of-the-left figure.

Edwards' list of accomplishments in Congress is not as long as Van Hollen's. She has spent less time in the House and served only one term while Democrats held the majority. She points often to a successful effort to allow Maryland students to receive subsidized dinners, and a provision tucked into the 2010 national health care law that gives state regulators more oversight of insurance rate increases.

The second of six children, Edwards was born in North Carolina but, as an Air Force brat, moved around the country frequently. Her father served during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and Edwards briefly considered attending the Air Force Academy, and wanted to become a pilot.

Edwards spent several high school years in New Mexico, where her father was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. It was there that she met Valerie Ervin, a lifelong friend who would later also move to Maryland and serve in elected office in Montgomery County.

Edwards graduated from Wake Forest University — one of only six black women in her class — and earned a law degree at the University of New Hampshire.

She worked as a project engineer at Lockheed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and as the executive director of the Arca Foundation, which promotes labor and human rights.

In 2006, Edwards challenged Rep. Al Wynn, her one-time boss as a Maryland state senator, in 2006 — running to his left and attacking his support for the war in Iraq.

She lost that year, but came back in 2008 to defeat him in the Democratic primary. He resigned rather than serving the remainder of his term, and Edwards won the seat in a special election.

Ervin described her friend as the "most doggedly determined person I have ever met." She recalled a camping trip the two took to Chincoteague several years ago. When a storm came up, and park rangers advised the campers to evacuate, Edwards told Ervin that the two would ride it out. And they did.

"She will not allow herself to be told what to do," Ervin said. "If you're an independent voice, you're going to be fighting an independent battle."

It's a good characteristic for politics, Ervin said with chuckle, but perhaps not for the outdoors.

"I will never, ever camp with her again."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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