WASHINGTON – After seven terms in Congress, and known as a kingmaker around Prince George’s County politics, Rep. Albert Wynn nearly lost his job in the primary. Now he says he’s learned his lesson.
“I think the message of this primary is I have to work harder, do things differently,” said Wynn, 55.
Just 3,000 votes separated Wynn from challenger Donna Edwards in the 4th Congressional District primary last month. Edwards, a lawyer and community activist, gained traction by criticizing Wynn’s vote authorizing the war in Iraq. It was the first time Wynn received less than 75 percent of the vote since he was elected in 1992.
Doing things differently, Wynn says, means changing the way he votes, “explaining your positions better, but you also have to solicit more feedback.”
Wynn has had plenty of time to learn the ways of politics — he’s been in various offices for almost 25 years — yet he’s still passionate about it.
“It’s not just wrangling, not just negotiating. It’s being involved in big issues that affect people’s lives,” he said. He lives for the “high drama” and excitement that comes with the job. “It never gets old.”
Edwards, however, isn’t convinced he’s changed.
“I think the jury is still out as to whether in fact Mr. Wynn has really gotten the message,” Edwards said, adding that new votes and soliciting feedback will not erase “14 years of poor leadership in the 4th Congressional District.”
Wynn has survived far worse political difficulties than low numbers — in 2000 his then-wife, Jessie Wynn, recorded phone messages attacking her husband on behalf of his opponent, Republican John Kimble. Wynn was reelected and the two have since divorced.
His roots run deep in the district. Before running for Congress, he served 10 years in the Maryland General Assembly in both the House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate. He was the first African American to serve the 25th Legislative District.
For the general election, Wynn has the upper hand — in District 4, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than five to one.
His opponent this time is Republican Michael Moshe Starkman, 28, who has never run for public office.
Starkman is also outgunned financially. Wynn has $206,823 left in campaign funds even after his bruising primary, according to Sept. 30 filing reports, while Starkman hasn’t raised enough to meet the $5,000 minimum for filing.
Wynn says he’s always wanted to be involved in politics, particularly since he grew up in Glenarden in a family of diehard Democrats.
As a Cub Scout, he made posters for John F. Kennedy — one of his political idols — for mock campaigns. During his time as student government president at Duval High School in Lanham he brought vending machines to the lunch room and championed the end of the school dress code. His high school yearbook entry said he wanted to go into politics.
The congressman has established a strong support base in the years since, especially in Prince George’s County, where he lives with his wife, Gaines Clore Wynn, and daughter, Gabrielle, 11. His stepdaughter, Meredith, 24, lives in Laurel, and his brother, Gary, sister, Ellee, and mother, Rose, all live in Maryland.
Politicians in his district, including Prince George’s County Councilman Will Campos, praise Wynn’s hands-on community involvement. Wynn has been particularly attentive to the needs of Campos’ district, which includes a large minority and immigrant community, he said.
“This past year there was a lot of anti-immigrant feelings coming from Capitol Hill,” he said. “He was one of the few congressmen that stood up against that anti-immigrant air and made public appearances denouncing the things that people were trying to do on the federal level.”
“That was something very commendable and I appreciate it,” he said.
Wynn’s push for economic development in the area, particularly through the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, is one example of how he has used his position in Congress to advance issues important to Prince George’s County,” said Thomas Hendershot, another Prince George’s County councilman who has known Wynn for more than 26 years.
Supporters say Wynn’s indelible connection to the district has given him a sense of legitimacy and staying-power in the community.
“You don’t weather a primary like that where you have good opposition and a lot of second-guessing in your positions unless you’re solid in your congressional district,” said U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who’s worked closely with Wynn since they both joined Congress in 1993. “Perhaps it will make him more effective congressman.”
Though Wynn openly admits he’s made mistakes in the past — his vote for the war in Iraq, for example — he’s not too proud to go back and fix it, which may help explain why in middle age he has braces.
“They say that’s a sign of optimism that a 55-year-old has braces,” he grins, flashing a set of soon-to-be-straight pearly whites. Doctors suggested he get them at 50, but he says he never really got around to it until now.