2/10/08

SEIU tries to flush AFL-CIO Dem incumbent

The power of incumbency in the U.S. House of Representatives can be summed up by this: Since 1998, only 3 percent of all incumbents who have run for reelection have been defeated at the ballot box. So how to explain the fierce political battle in Tuesday's Democratic primary now facing U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who has represented voters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for the past 15 years?

In a race that has attracted extraordinary national attention, Fort Washington nonprofit executive Donna F. Edwards, who has never held elected office, is mounting a well-funded challenge to a congressman who has been a powerful fixture on the local political scene since he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1982.

In recent years, Wynn gained a reputation for straying from Democratic orthodoxy on key votes and angered some in his district who believed he aimed to be a kingmaker in local politics. In a 2006 matchup between the two, Edwards fought Wynn to within 2,731 votes of the Democratic nomination, beating him in Montgomery but falling short in Prince George's.

For national progressives hoping to set an example for party leaders they perceive as too timid in confronting Republicans and too slow to end the war in Iraq, that race proved that Wynn could be beaten.

"They see him as vulnerable, and they're coming to play in Maryland," said Paul Herrnson, a politics professor at the University of Maryland.

Now, with little fear that Democrats could lose the seat in a district dominated by the party, national groups such as the antiwar MoveOn.org, the League of Conservation Voters and the Service Employees International Union have pumped more than $1.5 million in independent efforts to convince voters that Wynn is the wrong kind of Democrat. The Nation, a liberal magazine, declared the race "a bellwether contest in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party."

Wynn has been telling voters he heard their disappointment in 2006 but rejects the notion that he's out of step with his party. He is a member of the House's Out of Iraq Caucus and has proposed impeachment for Vice President Cheney.

He said constituents would be unwise to throw away seniority that has brought the 4th District federal dollars and a seat at the table of national decision-making in the Democratic-majority House for what he believes is a brand of ideologically driven politics.

"I've gotten things done. I'm in a position to get things done. And that's what this race is all about," he said in a Friday radio interview.

Wynn retains a considerable power base to help work polls and make calls on his behalf. He has been endorsed by AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, as well as teachers, police and firefighters associations. Yesterday afternoon, he rallied supporters with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and former Montgomery executive Douglas M. Duncan.

"I believe in solving problems; that's what people want," Wynn told an enthusiastic crowd of union workers and other volunteers in Lanham.

He also has new robo-calls out to voters' homes, alerting them to three liens that were at one time filed against Edwards's Prince George's home for failure to pay all of her taxes. Edwards denounced the calls as "desperate" personal attacks, saying she has spoken frequently about facing financial struggles as a single mother who went years without child support. She said she worked hard to repay her debts over the course of several years. Two of the liens, for delinquent payments totaling $9,786 and $11,693, were released in 2006. The third, filed over $645, was released last year. Wynn said he believes the issue is relevant, saying many voters struggle with debt but still pay their taxes on time.

Edwards has made her personal struggles a centerpiece of her campaign, arguing that they help her better understand the needs of working families. A well-known community activist in Prince George's, she is also a known quantity to national operatives through her work -- first as executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, then with the nonprofit Arca Foundation, which makes grants to progressive causes.

At a late-afternoon rally in Landover, Edwards was joined by supporters, including actress Mimi Kennedy, National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., head of the Hip Hop Caucus and a graduate of Prince George's schools. The nonprofit group encourages youth involvement in politics.

Edwards said that she is proud of the support she has received from national organizations but that her campaign also includes district residents who believe she'll bring change.

"I live here, too," she said. "I've lived here for 25 years. I raised my son here."

The oddly shaped district stretches from northern Montgomery, including Clarksburg, Olney and parts of Silver Spring, through much of central and southern Prince George's. Two-thirds of voters live in Prince George's, but the district gained more Montgomery voters when congressional boundaries were redrawn in 2001, part of a Democratic bid, ultimately successful, to unseat U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R).

That shift "changed the political dynamic," said Ron Walters, political science professor at the University of Maryland, in ways Wynn may not have immediately grasped. "It's a fairly significantly progressive area, and it was very dangerous to not tend to it very well," he said. "That's where she has caught on."

The Service Employees International Union has backed Edwards with particular vigor, with its leaders saying they want to send a message to Democrats across the country about their priorities.

"Donna Edwards is, for us, the prototype of what a new Democrat in the new Democratic majority in Congress ought to look and sound like," said Patrick Gaspard, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, which includes most of the Eastern Seaboard.

For Wynn supporters, that attitude has been frustrating, displaying a willingness to sacrifice the interests of the district for a national agenda.

"They want to be relevant; they want to be recognized as a force," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who supports Wynn.

The big unknown in the final days of the race is the impact of a potentially large turnout, which is expected in the majority-black district to favor Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the presidential race. Both candidates have endorsed Obama, Wynn almost a month ago and Edwards late last week. Edwards says she and Obama are both agents of change; Wynn counters that voters will believe that both he and Obama are solution-driven politicians.

Experts suggested that a large turnout of voters inspired by Obama's promises to break with the past might naturally support Edwards.

"It looks like a lot more people coming out to vote for Obama will play into Donna Edwards's strong suit," said Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Both candidates have campaign events scheduled until polls close Tuesday. The four other Democrats in the race are economist Michael Babula, utility consultant Jason Jennings, retired activist George E. McDermott and real estate agent George E. Mitchell.

"Whoa," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), when asked about the race in a radio interview Friday. "That is going to be a race to the finish."

(washingtonpost.com)

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