HOUSTON—Amanda Edwards is all about those deliverables. That’s her training as a lawyer: results. Public consensus is how she views a pathway to policy that can save lives and extend them. In Amanda Edwards’ world, there is plenty of space for values, integrity and people’s humanity. There is, however, no space for ideological battles that don’t arrive at solutions.
She is very aware of the hyper-partisan climate we’re in, but Edwards feels she is the right person to help save a divided party from itself. Indeed, she knows much of America is looking for a new crop of leadership that will help reverse the far-right tide that Donald Trump and the GOP are leading. With all of the talk about “Medicare for all,” abolishing ICE and political revolutions dominating far-left circles, she takes a more moderate tone. As a millennial, she may surprise many people with her center-left approach to problem-solving. But Edwards, 38, talks like a woman who feels comfortable enough with herself to know that her best chance to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator out of Texas is to be the moderate calm in Trump’s storm.
“Unfortunately, I think what we’ve seen in our political system is that people have gotten beholden to the political side of the world versus the service component,” she told me in an office space in downtown Houston. “Somebody with that service orientation, I think, is exactly what’s needed. I think that’s going to resonate with people because they’re tired. Even the people who vote all the time, they’re tired too. They’re like, ‘I voted last time and still nothing changed.’ That’s what erodes our democracy—when people don’t see the changes that you promise them. Then they say, ‘I’m not going to vote again.’ Or, ‘I don’t have time for that because it really doesn’t matter.’ They don’t necessarily all say it out loud, but it’s the truth. So we’ve got to counter being that. We’ve got to say, ‘No, it does matter. We are going to do something, and we’re going to get some results.’”
For Edwards, the pathway to winning the nomination next week on Super Tuesday has been going to as many small towns around Texas as possible and convincing the most politically disengaged people that they matter. For her, that means not making what she considers to be grand speeches about things she knows she can’t get done or pushing ideas that have no legislative basis for passage.
During our hourlong conversation we had in the fall and subsequent phone calls since then, Edwards, who left her city council seat in January to devote herself to the Senate race full time, told me that Texas is ready to become a blue state in the future and that she wants to lead that blue wave. But for her to do so, she must be a candidate that all Texans can get behind. That requires a lot of give and take without compromising people’s humanity.
For example, Texas is a gun state. As much as 43 percent of the population owns a gun, above the national average. There were three mass shootings in the state in 2019 alone, resulting in 32 deaths. There is a push nationally to ban assault rifles altogether. Edwards recently told a local news outlet that she’d push to restrict assault weapons sale, high-capacity magazines and closing loopholes for background checks. She’s not against an all-out ban on assault weapons eventually, but she is against a mandatory buyback to get there because there is no public consensus on it. There are steps Edwards feels we have to get to before any of that happens.
“We should be pushing for some of the things that we have consensus on first,” she said. “I definitely think we need it to be moving in that direction, absolutely. I think right now we have 90 percent approval on background checks. Why hasn’t that been done? I’m just talking about intermediate steps, I think there are steps to these things.”
In Texas, there are few national stories that locals care more about than border security and immigration. The state shares some 1,200 miles of border with Mexico and Texans are very divided about how to best address the political stalemate in Washington. Trump has made it his mission to essentially militarize the southern border with millions of dollars being diverted from relief aid.
“There is much more to it,” she said. “We have to start creating pathways to citizenship. We have to have the courage to lead through codified law. We have executive orders driven by the president because Congress has not had the courage to act on the issue of immigration. Instead of focusing on dismantling communities of people who have been living here forever, we need to reduce human trafficking and that is something that we need to focus on. But we are too busy doing ICE raids and that is the wrong approach. Twenty-five percent of Houston is foreign born. It’s politics that is the problem. People in Washington are too concerned with politics and not the outcomes. When we have politics leading the conversation, we always end with bad results.”
Edwards is one of 12 people vying to be the state’s Democratic nominee to unseat Republican Sen. John Cornyn on Super Tuesday. It is arguably this year’s most diverse U.S. Senate primary field, with two black men and four Latinx candidates in the mix; half of primary candidates are women. For a race as diverse as this one, it has gotten surprisingly little national attention. That means not a lot of money has been put into the race, her campaign manager Courtney Grigsby told me in a phone interview.
Presidential years are a gift and a curse for down-ticket candidates. On one end, turnout is almost always higher when the White House is up for grabs because everyone is drawn to the top of the ticket. Grigsby says this year has been unusual in that voters have been bombarded with a very crowded presidential primary and impeachment proceedings.
He’s been making sure Edwards is getting in front of as many people across the state as possible and managing their resources with a fine-tooth comb. For example, they have utilized software that allows the campaign to automate calls so that their staff are only talking to people who pick up the phone.
“As long as we are out talking to voters and she’s out in front of people—we’re taking advantage of her media as much as possible and other efficient advertisement,” Grigsby said. “It’s pretty obvious when you put Amanda side by side with anybody in this race, it’s obvious she cares about results.”
When she won her at-large city council seat in 2015, Edwards was 33 years old. Some joked that she was still a college student when she assumed office because of her youth. But in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which left 68 people in Texas and Louisiana dead in 2017, Edwards earned the respect of many of her colleagues and community leaders. She is noted for galvanizing efforts in affected areas of Houston, going door to door, accounting for residents who were in need of aid.
Community activist Huey Wilson said she saw Edwards grow into a politician who many community leaders came to respect after watching her use her at-large role on the city council to help residents try to pick up the pieces of their lives the hurricane shattered back in 2017.
“We watched her walk the streets and talk to our community and be very diplomatic and very gracious,” Wilson said. “We were already doing this work before. We pooled our resources to get as much as we possibly could and Amanda helped direct people to us who could help people get their houses gutted from the storm because hard as it might be to believe two, three, four months after the storm, people were still sitting in houses that never had their walls torn out. So by then it’s toxic. We’re two and a half years later and we still have people who haven’t had their houses cleaned out. But it wasn’t for lack of trying because she really did go to great lengths to get us resources and helped us get stuff for our people.”
Houston Councilwoman Maria Castex-Tatum (District K) says one of the qualities of Edwards that impressed her was her focus and acumen on policy and contracts that require copious amounts of reading.
“The people that scream the loudest are the ones that are far left or far right, but most Americans are looking for pragmatism,” she said. “She fits that mold. She is willing to work towards a win-win. She’s always looking for the best solution for the most people and how to deliver the most results and working to deliver for the people.”
The Dallas Morning News editorial endorsing Edwards spoke to her moderate bona fides and how Texans would be likely to get behind her style of politics.
“Edwards represents the direction the Democratic Party in Texas should follow—a person focused on solutions over soundbites who would dilute some of the partisan poison that is wrecking the country,” the endorsement read. “She also focuses on issues that middle-of-the-road Democrats, and many Republicans, will find appealing, specifically increased access to lower-cost health care and expanded economic opportunity. But she is also clear that people who like their private insurance coverage need to be able to maintain it. She also understands that, to balance budgets, you have to look at both expenditures and revenue. Her overall message hews to issues, not attacks. That alone would be a refreshing reset for so much of Washington.”
Healthcare is a personal issue for her, as her father was diagnosed with cancer when she was 10-years-old. She asked him questions about who was paying for his treatments and what if the insurance company told him “no.” He had employer-based insurance, which she said worked for their family. He died when she was 17 years old but lived two-and-a-half years longer, doubling his life expectancy. A single-payer system or Medicare for all isn’t the best situation for people like her father, she said. To be clear, she isn’t against Medicare for all because she doesn’t understand that many people don’t have employer-based insurance. She gets it. But Edwards argues that there is simply no public consensus on it and the debate to get Medicare for all will be gridlocked for so long that people will die as politicians in Washington fight over ideology.
A better alternative, from her point of view: a public option in the Affordable Care Act, driving premium costs down and closing the short-term insurance loopholes that Trump expanded.
“Single payer means that it’s basically you take Medicare,” Edwards said. “Medicare provides pretty good coverage for people. My mom’s on Medicare, my mom has cancer now. I’m watching her go through this journey. The challenge then, the pool becomes infinite. The wait times will go up. It will change the structure in which care is delivered. I believe people are not going to like that. I think if we hear people who are talking, questioning, and pressing on things like the lack of doctor choice under the Affordable Care Act, once you get in those waiting times and changing the way people are used to the kinds of service delivery that they have. People complain now when they see that Medicare debited from their Social Security. They thought, ‘Ooh, it’s so much. I’m paying in.’ Well, think about it if that covered the entire nation, think about how big that would be. It’s a large financial responsibility. I do not believe that, given the cons of it, that that will be something that the American people actually want.”
Edwards sees herself as much a dealmaker as she is an experienced policymaker. And the key to her success is that she doesn’t make promises she knows she can’t keep. She hopes that message will be enough next Tuesday, when voters go to the polls.
In a call today, Edwards told me that next week’s Senate primary will go down to the wire because the field is so packed. When she first ran for city council in 2015, she knew she had won before she drove over to her celebration party. For this Senate race, “It’s going to be a nail-biter.”
Drawing on her experience as a municipal finance lawyer, Edwards is confident she’s shown the people of Texas that she is a closer and can bring home the goods.
“So, you don’t finish the deal, you don’t get paid for the deal,” Edwards told me. “In my world, giving a speech is great, but what’s most important is delivering on that speech. That is a huge difference in the way we deal with our politics. People need those deliverables in their hands. If I’m going to talk to you about healthcare, I don’t want anybody looking me in the eye and saying to me, ‘My so-and-so died while we’ve been waiting on y’all to debate X, or Y, or Z.’ That’s not OK for me. I need to be able to provide those deliverables for people. They’re counting on us to do that. That’s important. That’s my approach.”
Correction, 2/25/20, 2:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated some endorsements from local newspapers. The story has been updated. The spelling of Houston Councilwoman Maria Castex-Tatum’s last name has also been corrected.