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Edwards, Van Hollen trade barbs over Wall Street

Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards. (Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON — Borrowing a page from the presidential campaign, the two Democrats running for the Senate in Maryland are taking aim at Wall Street — and each other — in a bid for voters fed up with the nation's financial industry.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards has repeatedly referred to her opponent as a "Wall Street Democrat" in emails to supporters, despite his record of crafting bills opposed by the banking sector.

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Meanwhile, Rep. Chris Van Hollen's campaign has criticized Edwards for not supporting measures to clamp down on tax loopholes that benefit the industry, even though those bills are unlikely to advance.

The war of words over Wall Street underscores the resonance the issue still carries with die-hard Democratic voters seven years after the financial meltdown brought the U.S. economy to the brink.

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Presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are also courting the left by using harsh terms when discussing the banking industry.

The issue's importance has been amplified for the party since the rise of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, elected to the Senate in 2012 after helping the Obama administration establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an investment watchdog.

"There is this new sort of pre-credentialing phenomena," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Candidates have got to make sure they have covered their Warren backside."

Edwards, of Prince George's County, and Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, are running for the Senate seat that will be vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in 2017.

Edwards has tried to stake out positions on the left, while Van Hollen, also a liberal, has cast himself as a conciliator who is better positioned to advance the Democratic agenda.

"It's a shame that Rep. Edwards has spent months raising money for her campaign with cynical and absurd attacks, knowing full well that Chris has led the fight in Congress to rein in Wall Street greed," said Sheila O'Connell, Van Hollen's campaign manager, in objecting to the "Wall Street Democrat" label.

The Edwards camp, not surprisingly, sees the situation differently.

"Congressman Van Hollen has a rich history of raising money from the same Wall Street banks that crashed our economy and sent foreclosure rates skyrocketing across Maryland," Edwards spokesman Benjamin F. Gerdes said in a statement. "No amount of legislative grandstanding can change his record."

Though Republican lawmakers opposed the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul that Congress passed in 2010, some GOP presidential candidates have embraced populist anti-Wall Street rhetoric as well. Texas Gov. Rick Perry vowed in a speech late last month that, as president, he wouldn't bail out a single bank on Wall Street.

In the Maryland contest, Edwards has repeatedly suggested that Van Hollen is cozy with the banking industry.

"I'm in a tough primary against a Wall Street Democrat," her campaign sent in an email to potential donors last month. "The Wall Street Democrat I'm facing is going to spend millions to stop me," her campaign wrote a few days earlier.

In response, Van Hollen aides noted his effort to pass legislation to close a loophole that allows some investment managers to pay a roughly 20 percent capital gains rate instead of a much higher income tax rate on fund profits. Democrats have been championing the issue for years.

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Edwards, Van Hollen aides noted, did not co-sponsor that bill.

The campaign also pointed to Van Hollen's proposal this year to impose a 0.1 percent fee on stock trades — an idea that has been opposed by Wall Street and embraced by Sanders' presidential campaign.

Neither candidate has received significant sums of campaign cash from the industry, and their positions on financial regulation are broadly similar. Both supported the Dodd-Frank regulations, for instance, and both voted against a bill in April that would modify how those regulations treat some mortgages.

Edwards vowed in April not to take money from "Wall Street banks" in her campaign for Senate. Van Hollen, who has raised significantly more overall, did not respond to that pledge publicly, but neither campaign has taken from political action committees associated with Wall Street. Both have taken individual contributions from those with ties to the financial sector.

The Edwards campaign notes that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the campaign arm of House Democrats — raised millions from Wall Street interests in the 2008 and 2010 cycles, when Van Hollen served as the group's chairman.

But Edwards also held a leadership role at the organization, as chair of a campaign that attempts to flip GOP-held seats.

Maryland's primary is set for April 26.

The only Republican campaigning for Maryland's Senate seat, Chrys Kefalas, dismissed the rhetoric from both Democratic candidates. Kefalas, who is considering a run, called for changes to Dodd-Frank but said he's not opposed to "smart" Wall Street regulations.

"It's more words from career politicians who do nothing for hard-working families while railing against Wall Street," said Kefalas. "What we're seeing is a political attack — more of the same."

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