Donna Edwards steps back into the fray

The former Maryland lawmaker has changed — or maybe it’s the Democratic Party that’s changed. She’s still figuring it out.

A lot has changed since Donna Edwards was last in Congress just over five years ago. After eight years representing the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the former Maryland congresswoman suffered multiple election defeats — in 2016, to Chris Van Hollen, in a U.S. Senate primary, and in 2018, to Angela Alsobrooks, in the race for Prince George’s County executive. 

In the years since, Edwards drove a used RV 12,000 miles across the country on a road trip, part beatnik soul-searching and part political quest to understand the sources of America’s disunity.  

And she’s changed too — or maybe it’s the Democratic Party that’s changed. She’s still figuring that one out.  

”I recently had somebody describe me as a centrist, which was so bizarre,” Edwards, 63, told Jewish Insider in a recent Zoom interview. ”I’m still a progressive. In some ways, I look at some of the younger members, and they have a lot of energy and stuff about them, and I think, ‘Maybe that was me 30 years ago, but the me today is a little bit more pragmatic.’”

When Edwards walked the halls of Congress, from 2008 to 2017, “centrist” was not a word that would have been used to describe her. She ran on a left-wing platform to unseat Al Wynn, a formidable Democratic incumbent who she painted as out of touch on issues such as the Iraq War, which he had voted to authorize. Ever since that race, which she won with the support of groups including Emily’s List and MoveOn.org, she has been a darling of national progressive organizations.

President Barack Obama speaks with Rep. Donna Edwards, (D-MD) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as he makes a surprise visit to the Democrats’ dugout during the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday, June 11, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Edwards found herself itching to get in on the action when her old seat opened up after Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) announced a run for state attorney general. ”I was, like everybody, really deeply troubled by what happened at the Capitol on January 6, and thought that now is not the time to run away from the fire, but to step into it,” Edwards explained. 

She announced her candidacy more than two months after her competitors began their campaigns. But Edwards has been able to muster some progressive star power from her previous time in office. (The fact that she spent the last few years as a paid contributor on MSNBC probably helped.)

In the less than two weeks after she entered the race in January, her campaign said it raised more than $300,000. Neither of her competitors — Jazz Lewis, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, or Glenn Ivey, a lawyer and former state’s attorney in Prince George’s County — raised that much in their first two months on the campaign trail.  

Maryland’s 4th District, which is mostly composed of the majority-Black Prince George’s County, has a rather small Jewish population. But the district’s location near both Montgomery County and Baltimore, the two hubs of Jewish life in the state, means it has attracted strong interest from local Jewish activists. And Israel is poised to be a major factor in the Democratic primary, at least for donors and activists in the state.

Edwards’ tenure in Congress was colored by a strained relationship with the mainstream pro-Israel community in Maryland, dating back to her early days in office. 

”The relationship between the Jewish community and Donna Edwards got off to a rocky start,” Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, told Politico in 2009. “I would be lying if I told you there wasn’t concern.” That year, amid tensions between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Edwards voted “present” on a resolution “recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza” that passed 390-5.

Halber declined to comment when asked about Edwards entering the race. But “the big issue,” one pro-Israel Democrat told JI when Edwards entered the race last month, “is whether to support Jazz or Glenn.”

When she ran for the seat in 2008, Edwards was one of the first candidates ever endorsed by J Street. 

“The interesting thing for Donna is that she was ahead of her time,“ J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told JI last week. “She’s been someone who really typifies what it means to be pro-Israel, and at the same time to have a very, very clear set of critiques about what the government and the policies of the [Israeli] government are.” 

J Street has not yet made an endorsement in the race, as the organization is still talking to all the candidates. But Ben-Ami called Edwards’s positions on Israel-related issues “rock solid.” 

AIPAC is entering campaign politics for the first time this year with a new political action committee, but it has not yet spent money on any races. “We have not yet made a decision on this race,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann said regarding Maryland’s 4th district. AIPAC’s PAC raised $714,000 in December 2021 alone.

In her conversation with JI, Edwards said that she would largely approach issues related to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a similar way to her previous time in office. “I rarely change my mind about these things, because I thought about it a lot in advance,” Edwards said, when asked whether she would have voted in favor of a bill providing supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system that passed the House in September 420-9. 

”I’m guessing that I probably would have voted more recently in support for that,” she added of the Iron Dome vote, while noting that she was unfamiliar with the exact legislation. In 2014, she voted in favor of a similar resolution that provided Israel with $225 million in supplemental funding for the Iron Dome. Earlier that year, she voted in favor of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. 

Edwards offered a similar answer when asked whether she supports the $3.3 billion in U.S. aid provided to Israel annually. “I think I voted for every Israel security appropriations bill that ever came in front of me. I mean, I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure that’s true. I don’t really see that changing,” Edwards said. 

But she did not vote in favor of all the legislation backed by AIPAC-aligned advocates. She voted against a 2013 bill that would have strengthened sanctions on Iran. She also did not sign onto several letters, supported by AIPAC and its allies, that sought to pressure the Obama administration on Iran sanctions, Syria sanctions, Egypt policy and the peace process, according to The Washington Post

 “Israel is the only existing democracy in the region,” she pointed out. “So with the threat to democracy [and] democracies around the world, we don’t want to see one fail.”

In a 2019 tweet, Edwards quoted a Huffington Post article that said, “[O]ne member of Congress has stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” Edwards referred to that member “my friend” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), using the article’s headline “The Minnesota Congresswoman Who Can Criticize Israel.”

Ben-Ami argued that Edwards’ positions are reflective of where the Democratic Party now stands on foreign policy. ”The majority of the party is where Donna is at, and the majority of American Jews are where Donna is at — and that is supportive of Israel, but very, very concerned and critical of what’s happening vis-a-vis the Palestinians,” he noted. ”Now you see races where people who hold the positions that Donna Edwards holds are facing a real stiff assault from the traditional establishment of the Jewish community, but they’re fighting the tide.”

One political activist in Prince George’s County told JI that Jewish supporters could play a big role in the Democratic primary. “If the support from the Jewish community is split, I think that makes it near impossible” for Lewis or Ivey to win, the activist said. “I’m saying she’s gonna win.”

Some members of the Maryland Jewish community say Edwards was unwilling to hear them out during her time in Congress. “Her perspective was very one-sided when it came to issues dealing with Israel,” Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, rabbi at the Conservative Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac and an AIPAC member, told JI in October. “I spoke with her on a number of occasions. I met with her and members of her staff, and it was clear that we weren’t going anywhere.”

“I do think that one of the things that I’ve come to recognize,” Edwards explained, “and part of it is through travel to Israel, is the vulnerability that Israel understandably feels in an area where it’s surrounded by nations that either don’t respect Israel’s sovereignty or where there have been tensions. So it’s important to have the ability for the United States to provide that kind of strategic assistance.”

Edwards’ father was in the Air Force, and her family moved frequently when she was growing up — she attended 14 schools between kindergarten and high school graduation. “I first became fascinated, actually, with the Middle East because my dad was stationed in Saudi Arabia,” Edwards explained. “He did joint trainings with the IDF, and so I began to think about the world as a much bigger place.”

As she developed an interest in foreign policy, ”my focus was always on human rights, democracy, stability in the world, and I think that’s the lens through which I look at foreign policy.” 

Edwards says her commitment to democracy colors her views on Israel. “Israel is the only existing democracy in the region,” she pointed out. “So with the threat to democracy [and] democracies around the world, we don’t want to see one fail.”

Edwards wants to see a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I just always leaned toward what is going to provide Israel security, but also engage Israel with its neighbors so that the region can exist in peace and stability,” said Edwards. But such an outcome now ”feels so much more distant for a whole host of reasons,” she explained.

Among those reasons, Edwards continued, is the impact of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. ”The wars in Syria, Yemen, have escalated, without any checks not just on [Iran’s] nuclear program, but without any checks on the other ways in which it engages in the most nefarious ways, increasing supplies to Hamas and Gaza.”

America lost some of its negotiating power in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when Trump left the Iran deal, Edwards argued. She also criticized the former president’s approach to solving the conflict.

There were “Trump administration policies that actually put the question of negotiating really in a much more precarious position, not the least of which was the Iran nuclear deal, but also thinking that you could sort of pressure and pound the Palestinians to the negotiating table,” Edwards said. 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) attend a House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee hearing in the Capitol Visitor Center titled “The Failure of Trickle Down Economics in the War on Poverty,” April 14, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement is a priority for Edwards. “I hope that the Biden administration, as it seems to be doing, is engaging again to try to construct a new deal,” said Edwards. ”When I came out of Congress, we were in an agreement, the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. Then not long after that, Trump pulls that away. And I think it actually has made Israel more vulnerable, because we don’t have any real oversight into what Iran is doing or not doing in its nuclear program.”

Edwards does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. ”I have not supported it, either when it first emerged, and not now,” said Edwards. “I know, that sets me apart from some other members of Congress where people might say, ‘Oh, she might be aligned with them.’ And really, I mean, my history tells me that I have not.”

However, she questions whether Congress should weigh in on the issue. ”Congress has a role whenever it wants to have a role. I think for that kind of [anti-BDS] legislation to be successful, it would have to pass the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president. I just don’t see that happening,” she said. “I don’t really know that it is something that Congress necessarily even has to weigh in on.”

Edwards, calling herself a “pragmatic progressive,” said, “I deal in political reality.”.

“I think our job is to push as hard as possible, but to recognize when we have to negotiate, and when you have to cut a deal — and then move on to the next thing,” said Edwards. She cited her support for Medicare for All, noting that when the Affordable Care Act was being negotiated, she wanted a public option for healthcare. 

“But then when we realized that that was just not going to happen,” she recalled, “I negotiated, and ended up getting some important provisions in the Affordable Care Act that actually has saved consumers billions of dollars. But I wasn’t willing to fall on my sword and to kill the legislation because I didn’t get what I wanted.”

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