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Edwards holds endorsement as Democrats seek unity

Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards.

After a bruising primary race for Senate, Maryland Democrats have scheduled "unity" rallies and shifted their messaging to better fit the general election. But one piece of business from last month's election remains conspicuously unresolved.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who lost the contest for the party's nomination, has yet to endorse the fellow Democrat and onetime ally who won: Rep. Chris Van Hollen.

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As state Democrats pivot to the fall election with an eye toward how presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would affect races further down the ballot, Edwards has instead redoubled the focus on her own party, writing a piece in Cosmopolitan this week in which she questions whether Democratic leaders are truly committed to diversity.

The lingering discord stands in contrast to state Republicans, who have mostly lined up behind GOP nominee Kathy Szeliga, a state delegate from Baltimore County. Gov. Larry Hogan has said he plans to do "everything we can" to help her. Republican Chrys Kefalas, who finished third in the GOP primary, endorsed his former rival with a recent op-ed piece in The Baltimore Sun.

Second-place finisher Chris Chaffee did not respond to requests for comment.

Szeliga and Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, are running for the U.S. Senate seat that will be left open next year by the retirement of longtime Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, stayed neutral in the primary but is now backing Van Hollen.

"Democratic unity is important, and anything that helps Democratic unity is important, and so therefore the person you run against supporting you is important," Cardin said. "Getting his opponent's endorsement will not guarantee his win; not having it will not guarantee his loss."

Edwards, of Prince George's County, did not respond to a request for comment. She has not spoken at length about the election since she delivered a scathing concession speech after polls closed on Election Day.

Edwards, a black woman, had made her identity a central theme of her campaign. In her speech, she noted that the primary results had created the possibility that Maryland would send an all-male delegation to Congress for the first time since 1971.

"What I want to know from my Democratic Party," she told supporters, "is when will the voices of people of color, when will the voices of women, when will the voices of labor, when will the voices of black women, when will our voices be effective, legitimate, equal leaders in a big-tent party?"

She reiterated those themes in the Cosmopolitan piece.

"The campaign for the Senate in Maryland, a nearly majority-minority state — some would say that Maryland is not just a Democratic state, it's a liberal one — generated fundamentally important questions about what elected representation means and looks like in the United States," Edwards wrote.

"We are neither post-racial nor post-gender. We must be honest about the depth of the problem in order to unloose the structural barriers that contribute to it — the money, the process, the lineage. It may require some to simply step aside."

If Democrats hold on to their seats in the general election, the state would send two African-Americans to Congress: Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and former Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who won the nomination in Edwards' 4th District.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, said he is disappointed that the state's congressional delegation might not have a woman's voice for the first time in decades, but it was not by design. Hoyer said he believes the bench is deep in Maryland for women and black officials.

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"The assertion that somehow we're not reaching out, not being inclusive, I think, is simply inaccurate," he said.

Concern about lack of diversity among elected officials in the state was a central issue after the primary in 2006, when Cardin, who is white, defeated Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and NAACP president, in that year's Democratic primary for Senate.

Mfume spoke frequently about a lack of African-Americans within the state's political ranks, and party leaders endured weeks of hand-wringing and meetings, including a high-profile chat with newly elected Gov. Martin O'Malley.

And yet Mfume backed Cardin two weeks after the polls closed at a unity rally with then-Sen. Barack Obama at the University of Maryland.

Mfume, who endorsed Edwards this year, said last week that there's still work to be done.

"From my perch, the Democratic Party leadership [in Maryland] has a long, long way to go to creating a feeling among black and Latino voters, in particular, and maybe to some extent even women voters, that they mean what they say," he said.

"It's had a chilling effect" on black would-be candidates, Mfume said.

"Donna Edwards has to have, and has to be given the leeway to take as much time as she wants to be comfortable before offering an endorsement," he said. "If she needs two weeks or two months, the party has to give her that space."

Edwards' remarks have been closely followed by party leaders, but the response has been far more muted than it was after Mfume's clarion call in 2006. Several Democrats said that is partly because of the dynamics of this year's election — consumed as it has been with Trump's personality — and partly because of the person delivering the message.

"I just don't foresee anybody thinking this is an election they can sit out," given Trump, said Mike Morrill, a Democratic strategist based in the state. "This is a year when, frankly, her voice actually has less impact than it should."

Others said that while the thrust of her argument is important for party leaders to consider, Edwards is not as well positioned to offer the criticism as was Mfume. Van Hollen, who is white, captured support from most of the state's better-known black leaders. And while he did not receive a majority of black votes, exit polls indicate he got those of about four in 10 African-American women.

A decade ago, Cardin faced Republican former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who is black, for the seat left open by Sen. Paul Sarbanes' retirement.

This year, Van Hollen will square off against Szeliga, a candidate who frequently touts her status as a mother and grandmother, and who has tried to capitalize on Edwards' criticism.

"When I talk to traditional Democratic voters, they tell me they are unhappy with the choices they've been given on the Democrats' congressional ticket — a ticket they feel has been forced upon them by the establishment," Szeliga said in a statement. "Like I've said before, women deserve a seat at the table because they bring added value to the discussion."

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway was a leading voice in raising concerns about Mfume's loss in 2006. This time, the Baltimore Democrat backed Van Hollen — in part, she said, because of the negative advertising aired by the Edwards campaign.

Conway, who is black, also said Edwards has a point.

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"I would probably have to agree with [Edwards] in terms of the lack of diversity in the party," she said.

She stressed that party leaders never pressured her to endorse anyone — despite rumors that have circulated that they did.

"You look at Congress, you look at the U.S. Senate, it just says something about the culture of the Hill, and it says something about the Maryland Democratic Party."

Del. Cory V. McCray, among a handful of state lawmakers who backed Edwards in the race, said he is proud he supported her and is glad she is raising her concerns now.

But the Baltimore Democrat also said he thinks the party will quickly coalesce around Van Hollen, in part because he has made an effort to reach out to all communities, including those of color.

"I really feel like we had two strong candidates," said McCray, who is black. "So you move forward."

Asked about the importance of an endorsement by Edwards, Van Hollen's campaign responded with a statement from former Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Yvette Lewis that pointed to the candidate's broad support in the primary.

Lewis, who is black, is a co-chair of Van Hollen's campaign.

"The Maryland Democratic Party, led by Senator Mikulski, has unified around Chris and knows how much is at stake this fall," she said. "We'd welcome Congresswoman Edwards's support as well."

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