While all eyes were on the predictable results unfolding from Tuesday’s so-called Acela primaries, three major statewide, congressional and local races quietly unfolded that redefined the trajectory of modern African-American politics … at least for the foreseeable future.
Tuesday started off with much hope that Maryland—home to one of the nation’s more powerful hubs of black political activity, and still fresh from wave-making unrest just over a year ago in Baltimore—would usher in a sea change in which old guards were replaced with new ones.
It didn’t happen that way … at all. In the end, a dominant black Democratic machine, aligned with a Democratic establishment, sent a loud and clear message: We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
But they didn’t get there without a lot of drama that turned the once sleepy, generally middle-class state of many government workers into a fascinating hotbed of nasty black political fights. Here are three of them.
In Baltimore, the Empire Stays Put
Baltimore, still licking its wounds, appeared to seek new leadership in a field of Democratic mayoral candidates so crowded you lost count. Convicted former Mayor Sheila Dixon’s street appeal was boosting her in polls. Young next-gen firebrands like Councilman Nick Mosby, Twitter sensation DeRay Mckesson and nonprofit advocate Calvin Young were very visible. Councilman Carl Stokes, while old-school, was still adequately loud and defiant. Folks wanted to feel as if something different was bubbling underneath Baltimore’s unpaved potholes and gentrifying Whole Foods stores.
Black city leadership was on trial for missteps in the post-Freddie Gray landscape. Smart observers even whispered that the field’s two white candidates—wealthy David Warnock and attorney Elizabeth Embry—both had the chance to become the next Martin O’Malley, with either one benefiting from split black votes and fed-up white voters.
In the end, the city’s tight Democratic machine made sure that establishment candidate state Sen. Catherine Pugh won. All that noise about a black millennial uprising? Young folks barely vote in primaries, much less college students worrying about finals. And Baltimore’s poor also viewed the candidates from a distance, unconvinced that anyone was up to the task.
Ironically, while Philadelphia-area-born Pugh represents the West Baltimore hood rocked by rocks and fire a year ago, she was the candidate gobbling up the most business-lobby cash. The National Black Caucus of State Legislators chair leveraged nationwide connections, called in business-community favors and locked in healthy endorsements for Pugh from street-credded politicos like Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Mosby (who eventually dropped out). With the city being overwhelmingly Democratic, Pugh is a November shoo-in.
But in the aftermath of an expensive race, questions linger about whether she’ll be any different from outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, or any more empathetic to the needs of Charm City’s poor.
Not the Black Senator Black Maryland Wanted
The U.S. Senate hasn’t had a black female senator since Carol Moseley Braun left office in 1999, so lots of folks assumed that Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), a scrappy lawmaker from upscale Washington, D.C., suburb Prince George’s County, would win in Maryland. Hailey Wallace in Black Enterprise, sipping the Kool-Aid, wrote about how “Donna Edwards Could Make History Today.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times finger-painted a tight race in which Edwards had a strong shot. Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who was thinking about a Senate run himself at one point, put all his chips on the four-term congresswoman.
Groggy from endorser’s remorse, Jealous—among others—is probably thinking that he should have gone ahead and run.
To an overconfident Edwards leaving her House seat behind, it must have looked all good. Outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski (who had been quietly grooming Rawlings-Blake until Baltimore unrest dashed that plan) had long said that she wanted a woman to replace her. Bernie Sanders signs were showing up in front yards, so an upset against establishment favorite Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) seemed natural.
Black folks were nearly half the electorate in the last really hot Democratic primary in 2008. Black women are 53 percent of the state’s black population. Black folks in the state hungered for Maryland’s first black senator after multiple tries (at least that’s what they told Edwards), and national friends were toasting the idea of two black women in the Senate this year: Edwards and California’s Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris.
But Edwards was never exactly the black senator black Maryland was looking for.
Long before the White House took a light dip into a vicious miniwar over a pro-Edwards ad that misconstrued Van Hollen’s role in negotiating an “NRA loophole,” there were clear signs that the Prince George’s County congresswoman wouldn’t win. For one: Few residents or influencers in her affluent majority-black home county seemed to like her or back her. Folks in her district long complained that she was flat and unresponsive on constituent service. Her own Congressional Black Caucus peeps, the majority of whom reportedly despise her, didn’t even bother stumping through the state for her (“historic” be damned)—neighbor Rep. Cummings included. The former nemesis she defeated in 2008, Al Wynn, sits on the CBC Political Action Committee board, so that didn’t work out.
Actual black state legislators, among them prominent black women from Baltimore and Prince George’s, were enthusiastically backing the white dude. Edwards, among others, completely misread the millennial-driven Sanders revolution whose coattails she had hoped to ride. In machine-state Maryland, there’s no such thing as boat-rocking (even when the state occasionally elects a Republican governor). It was so bad, Mikulski didn’t even back Edwards—the woman candidate—bragging publicly that she was staying “studiously neutral.”
And if you’re a black statewide candidate in a black-heavy state who can barely nudge past 60 percent black-voter support in polls like this one (pdf) and this one (pdf), that’s when you should hang it up. Hillary Clinton, the white woman, actually got stronger black-voter support than Edwards. Still, you gotta give Edwards her due: She kept swinging (until an actual downtown-Baltimore courthouse burned).
Rich White Maryland Suburbs Want White Guys Repping Them
In the jam-packed race to fill the outgoing Van Hollen’s seat, the lone black man in the bunch, Will Jawando, was convinced that all he’d need was to energize one particularly ignored voting bloc: black immigrants.
That’s not the first competitive constituency that comes to mind when one is running for Congress in the affluent 8th Congressional District. It’s a really upscale and really white upper-middle-class D.C. suburb known as Montgomery County. It has a ranking white House member who reps it. Oh, and did we forget to mention that it’s very, very white (about 63 percent)?
But Jawando was convinced that black immigrants were untapped muscle. “African and Caribbean immigrants make up a significant portion of Maryland and my district’s black voting population,” Jawando told The Root several months ago. “They are increasingly influential."
That’s true: Maryland has a foreign black population that’s over 10 percent of the overall black population. But this probably wasn’t the cycle to vigorously test it, yet. Endorsements from black political heavyweights like Cummings and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) streamed in, but Jawando didn’t even manage to make the top three. Montgomery County voters went for old-school progressive professor and state Sen. Jamie Raskin instead, brushing aside big-funded campaigns like David Trone’s (who broke records with his own $12 million) and Kathleen Matthews’ (wife of MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews). Raskin even won what was viewed as a questionable endorsement from the county’s black Democratic club.
It was an unfortunate outcome for a still-young Jawando, who more than likely has a bright political future. The biracial half-Nigerian, half-white rising star with the Barack Obama-like biography could have pulled off a stunning come-from-behind political tale. But in this round, the place known as “MontCo”—besieged by a growing sea of black and brownness—wants to keep its white guys close.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.