When Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks eight years ago, she said she hoped the decision would provoke a debate about U.S. foreign policy.
Now the 30-year-old transgender woman, running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, says there is another urgent discussion voters must face: how a burgeoning military apparatus is gradually creeping into domestic life in places like Baltimore.
“Many of the weapons that we were using in Iraq and Afghanistan have found their way to our streets, and many people who are veterans and have military training are bringing this military training” to police forces, the former Army intelligence analyst said.
Manning’s celebrity has the potential to reshape Maryland’s Senate race, where incumbent Sen. Ben Cardin remains favored to win a third term. Even Cardin, a Democrat, has acknowledged that Manning’s candidacy has sparked a wave of national media attention to the June 26 primary election.
Manning’s name may be as well known in the state as any politician’s. And she has the potential to build a national fundraising network of young, liberal voters who are ascendant in the Democratic Party after President Donald J. Trump’s upset win. Trump’s unorthodox campaign, meanwhile, has thrown into question conventional thinking about the viability of first-time candidates.
Still, Manning faces a high hurdle in a state that has traditionally rejected insurgents. In 2016, Maryland heavily favored Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination over Bernie Sanders. That same year, Democratic voters picked Chris Van Hollen for Senate over Donna F. Edwards, a former congresswoman who, like Manning, tried to paint her opponent as an insider whose progressive credentials are shaky.
It’s not yet clear whether Manning can overcome those challenges. Asked if she has hired anyone who has worked in a statewide campaign, she said she is interviewing potential staff now. On fundraising, Manning said “we don’t want to raise millions.” She said she has no intention of running television ads, but plans to rely on other methods to reach voters.
“I can’t stand watching campaign ads,” she said. “We don’t need to go to these old-media methods.”
While that approach is undoubtedly appealing to some on an ideological level, campaign veterans say it will make it much harder for her take on an incumbent.
“If she was putting together a real campaign team with a real fundraising operation and real professionals, then I think this might be different,” said Justin Schall, a Democratic consultant who has worked with several campaigns in Maryland. “This feels like someone who really enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame and is looking for some more attention, particularly from the national media.”
Cardin — a former congressman elected to the Senate in 2006 — has raised $3.5 million since early 2017. Forty-five percent of Maryland voters approved of his performance in a Goucher Poll last year. Twenty-one percent disapproved and roughly a third weren’t sure.
Manning isn’t shy about taking on Cardin directly. She describes his career as “unremarkable,” and has criticized legislation he wrote last year that the ACLU and other groups oppose, arguing it would criminalize boycotts targeting Israel. She said Cardin has not been aggressive enough in restraining immigration enforcement, or in calling for criminal justice reforms.
“He's old hat,” Manning said of Cardin, who is 74. “He's kept this establishment going.”
Cardin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
To address crime in Baltimore, Manning favors reducing the police presence. She points to the growing use by police across the country of military-style equipment and tactics.
“Police presence creates violence, and it creates a more intense environment in communities,” she said.
Like Sanders, she supports free college tuition and health care for all comers — which she said she would pay for by scaling back the military. She breaks with Democratic orthodoxy by suggesting the party’s historic focus on jobs is overblown, and said she instead favors the idea of a universal basic income, in which everyone receives some level of income from the government.
Manning offers that idea as a contrast to a federal job guarantee, a concept that has reemerged in some liberal circles in which everyone would be entitled to a government job. Both ideas are discussed in the context of an economy that is increasingly moving toward automation.
“I think we need to transition away from this idea that everybody needs to have a job,” Manning said. “I don’t think that creating more jobs that are pointless in an automated society is necessarily the solution.”
So far, Manning does not appear to have connected with the state’s progressive leaders. One of those leaders, former state lawmaker and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, said she had not heard from Manning.
“It feels more like a statement candidacy than an actual campaign,” Mizeur said. “I don’t sense an appetite to find an alternative [to Cardin] in the primary.”
Manning grew up as Bradley Manning in Oklahoma in a family described in court testimony as troubled. As her home life deteriorated, she moved to Chicago, worked odd jobs and wound up sleeping in her car. An aunt in Potomac found Manning in 2006 and invited her to live with her, providing an oasis of stability.
When Manning decided she wanted to run for office, she said, there was never doubt she would do so in Maryland.
“This is the place that I have the strongest roots and ties to out of anywhere else,” Manning said from the living room of her modern apartment in North Bethesda.
She studied mathematics at Montgomery College in the hope of transferring the credits and earn a degree in physics. Though her life improved, it was still difficult. She worked 70 hours a week in retail jobs as she began to wrestle with her gender identity. Encouraged by her father, a former Navy intelligence analyst, she concluded that the Army would offer a measure of stability.
She enlisted in 2007, and was deployed to Iraq.
It was there that Manning gained access to classified computer networks. In early 2010, she downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents — diplomatic cables, war logs and gunsight video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed Iraqi civilians. She eventually gave the documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning was tried by court martial at Fort Meade in 2013, convicted of espionage, theft and disobeying orders, and sentenced to 35 years. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence in the final days of his presidency.
She was released in May and is continuing to appeal the conviction.
Manning, who said she now earns a living through speaking engagements, said she doesn’t believe her decision then will hurt her chances now, even in a state like Maryland that is heavily tied to the military and federal government. She hopes those who work for federal agencies — many of whom she describes as afraid to speak out about internal concerns — will applaud the move.
“The values that I had whenever I did these things are the same values that I bring to the table now,” Manning said. “I’m willing to put myself out there. I’m willing to make tough, hard calls and face the consequences for that.”