WASHINGTON – For perhaps the first time since he took office in 1992, U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn has a serious primary challenger for his 4th Congressional District seat.
Wynn, a seven-term incumbent, faces Donna F. Edwards on Tuesday, a fiery challenger with proven fundraising abilities. Edwards’ prowess coupled with public unrest over Wynn’s voting record and a swirl of controversy surrounding his campaign have combined into what some experts are calling the congressman’s toughest race since he was elected to office.
“Donna Edwards is a very bright candidate, though underfunded and understaffed,” said Thomas Schaller, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Baltimore County. “In Wynn’s case, he’s got a serious challenger on his hands.”
Edwards, who entered the race in April, is executive director of Arca Foundation, a charity that funds projects promoting a variety of public policy issues like Social Security and campaign finance reform. She’s won endorsements recently from The Washington Post and MoveOn.org and said she believes she has enough momentum to unseat Wynn.
“Someone has to hold him accountable and offer a different vision for the 4th Congressional District, and I know I can bring that,” she said.
Edwards was once a supporter of Wynn’s and clerked for him while she was in law school, but she’s since become “very disappointed,” in his performance and his voting record. She decided to run when no one else stood up to challenge him, she said.
Some consider Edwards a fundraising powerhouse. Her list of campaign donors includes names like Gloria Steinem, Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon, all of whom she met through mutual friends over the years advocating for different causes. She raised nearly $25,000 more than Wynn in the most recent filing, according to FEC campaign finance reports, although Wynn has raised more money overall.
“Is this enough to unseat a fairly well-entrenched incumbent? You know, we’ll know in eight days, but by any measure that’s a long shot,” said Peter Shapiro, senior fellow at the Academy of Leadership of the University of Maryland and former chairman of the Prince George’s County Council. But, he added, “I think she has a shot.”
Wynn said he will run a positive campaign about ideas like money for diabetes screening and prisoner re-entry programs.
“That’s the way I campaign,” he said. “I think people like that, and I don’t think they like the kind of mean-spirited campaign that my opponent has engaged in.”
Tension between the two campaigns came to a boiling point at a debate Aug. 16 at Prince George’s County Community College when campaign workers from both camps tussled outside.
The incident “certainly drew a lot of negative attention to Wynn,” Schaller said, but few believe it’s enough to seriously damage his campaign. “He had a far more serious credibility issue with his former wife and that didn’t hurt him, so I don’t know how this is going to,” said Ron Walters, government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Walters referred to an incident in 2000 when Wynn’s then-wife, Jessie Wynn, supported the campaign of his Republican challenger, John Kimble, by recording voice-mail messages attacking Wynn’s character. Wynn was re-elected.
Edwards’ strategy has been to focus on Wynn’s record by highlighting his votes on a number of issues to show voters “why he’s a bad Democrat.” Wynn’s 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to go to war in Iraq, which he later agreed was wrong, has been particularly highlighted.
But analysts say that vote doesn’t mean he deserves the label “Maryland’s Joe Lieberman,” a nickname coined by the Edwards’ campaign in an Aug. 9 press release sent out after the Lamont victory.
“He hasn’t been the enabler that Joe Lieberman was. It’s not fair to say he was in lockstep with Bush,” Schaller said, but added that “it is fair to call him the black Lieberman” because his vote for the war is very disconnected from African Americans in Maryland and nationally.
The Iraq issue alone will not be enough to take down Wynn, experts say.
“Wynn is a smart guy and a formidable candidate. His roots are deep in Prince George’s County.” Schaller said. “He has all the built-in advantages.”
Like any challenger, Edwards will have a tough time matching the political support Wynn enjoys as an incumbent. “I don’t believe she can get behind the inner-Beltway support that has always supported Wynn,” said fellow challenger, George McDermott, who ran against Wynn in 2004.
“Al has been a good congressman for 14 years,” said Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Some of Wynn’s constituents beg to differ.
“I’m very discouraged with him,” said Kathryn E. McClanen, 76, who works at Howard County Public Library and also has experience working as a peacemaker in the Middle East. She became disillusioned by Wynn’s attitude toward the war after meeting with him several times, she said.
Others said his voice in Congress hasn’t accurately reflected that of his constituents. When Steve Calandro, 53, met his new representative after the area was redistricted in 2002, he said Wynn seemed like a “sincere, nice man,” but his record gave Calandro more than a moment’s pause.
The Iraq vote, along with his support for the Bush-Cheney energy bill, which offered generous benefits to oil companies, and the Terri Schiavo legislation, which allowed the parents of a brain-damaged Florida woman to reinsert her feeding tube, were politically out-of-step with his views, Calandro said.
“He just really disappointed me,” he said. “And it just didn’t stop.”