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Democracy and diversity

Last month, Rep. Donna Edwards lost to Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate, 53 percent to 39 percent, and she made clear in her election night concession speech she was none too happy about it. In an article that appeared on Cosmopolitan.com this week, she goes further, describing the loss as a "concussion-worthy crash" of a black woman hitting a glass ceiling and an example of how white men continue to dominate elected office in a nation that is neither post-racial nor post-gender.

She's certainly correct about that last point. On the national level, the numbers don't lie: About 71 percent of elected officials are men, and 90 percent of them are white, according to a survey conducted by the Reflective Democracy Campaign. But that's the view from 30,000 feet. Each individual election has its own dynamics, and there was certainly a lot more going on in hers than race and gender. It should be noted that Ms. Edwards was tied or leading in the polls throughout much of the contest and only fell behind in the final days. Perhaps that was because of backlash against her for misleading (at best) attacks she and her allies made against her opponent's record on gun control, and perhaps it was just another story of the better funded candidate winning.

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And one can't discount the quality of her opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen. This wasn't a case of a qualified black woman losing to an unqualified white man. Rather, it was a contest between two qualified candidates in which the one with the stronger record of accomplishment in state and federal government prevailed. Surely even Ms. Edwards would concede that race and gender are not the only considerations; otherwise, she would be endorsing Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga for Senate, right?

But let's take a look at Ms. Edwards' larger point: Is the electorate (and Maryland specifically) unwilling to elect a black woman to high office? As Ms. Edwards was the first black woman to be elected to Congress from Maryland, it's not difficult to see her concern. Yet relatively few black women have even filed as candidates for Congress from Maryland, which may represent the real level of the problem — the failure of political parties to cultivate and help finance qualified candidates. But one can't pin that shortcoming on the electorate.

The view from Baltimore — which has been led by black women since Sheila Dixon was first sworn in as mayor in 2007 and is almost certain to be for at least four more years — may be somewhat different than that in Maryland's 4th Congressional District. Ms. Mikulski has been a member of Congress since 1977 and a senator since 1987. She is the longest serving female senator in the nation's history and has long been regarded as Maryland's most popular political figure. But she is also white. The track record for black candidates running for statewide office is not nearly as good — three African American men have been elected as lieutenant governor running with a white male candidate at the top of the ticket (Michael Steele in 2002, Anthony G. Brown in 2006 and 2010 and Boyd Rutherford in 2014), but none have won statewide office on their own, despite attempts by Messrs. Steele and Brown.

In the Maryland General Assembly, about one-quarter of the officeholders are black in a state that is about 30 percent black. The bigger gap is actually in regard to women: About 32 percent of the 188 members are women in a state where women represent 51 percent of the population. With Senator Mikulski's departure, the state's congressional delegation could wind up devoid of women for the first time since 1973. That's not a happy prospect, but it's not necessarily a reflection of voters' sexism either. After all, this is also a state where Democrats happily endorsed Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders for president by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Nonetheless, Ms. Edwards' larger point bears repeating. After November, Congress (and Maryland) will no longer have the benefit of representation by someone like Ms. Edwards who embodies the experience of many with under-represented viewpoints, including that of single mothers. That failure to achieve proper diversity is clearly a problem, but what is the cure?

Ms. Edwards suggests it may be time for "some to simply step aside." We aren't sure exactly what she means by that, or who she has in mind. But we would say it isn't necessary or desirable. We don't deny that barriers still exist in the minds of some in the electorate, but the prospects for women and minorities are by no means bleak — just look at California, where the two leading candidates for the U.S. Senate are the state's female, African-American attorney general and a Latina member of Congress. What we need is for greater numbers of people like Ms. Edwards to run for office, and if they fail, to run again.

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