Filling Barbara Mikulski’s Shoes

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Following a legend is always a tall order. Barbara Mikulski has served in elected office since 1971 and in Congress since 1977. She has been in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate longer than any other woman and is the first female senator from Maryland. After 30 years in that job, she is stepping down after this year.

Those statistics, however, barely begin to describe Mikulski’s impact and the long shadow she has cast over Maryland politics. While still a member of the Baltimore City Council, she helped rewrite the rules for the Democratic Presidential nominating process. She’s been a national figure as a result of both her considerable political skills and her dynamic personality.

In Congress, Mikulski has been a leader on women’s issues, on policies regarding cities and poverty, and was one of only a handful of senators to vote against the Iraq War authorization.

Even before she become the first Senator from Maryland to chair the Appropriations Committee, she was an effective and resourceful advocate for programs and funding that benefitted the State. As charismatic a speaker as Mikulski is, her impact has come much more from actions than from words.

While it would be asking too much of the Democrats vying to succeed her to expect them have a similar impact any time soon, her approach to the office does provide a template for assessing their candidacies.  Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen, both members of the U.S. House of Representatives, are presenting fundamentally different arguments in support of their campaigns for office.

Edwards, with the significant financial backing of Emily’s List, has been emphasizing the fact that she would be the first African-American senator elected from the State of Maryland. She is also stressing her desire to keep the seat in the hands of a woman, an argument that clearly carried great weight with Emily’s List.

The 4th District Congresswoman is generally described as a passionate advocate for progressive causes. On the other hand, she is almost never, other than in her own campaign materials, portrayed as an effective advocate for those causes.  Additionally, she is not known as a representative who has worked closely with other members of Congress. As a result, her candidacy relies more on identity politics than on a record of actual accomplishments.

Van Hollen is in many respect the opposite of Edwards. He rose remarkably quickly to acquire influence and respect within the leadership of the House of Representatives. The 8th District Congressman led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is the ranking member of the Budget Committee, and has been deeply involved in efforts, including on the budget, to forge bipartisan agreements.

While skepticism about the significance of endorsements is certainly justified, the pattern of endorsements for Edwards and Van Hollen is worth examination. Van Hollen has received most of the high-profile endorsements, including from two African-American County Executives in Maryland, Rushern Baker in Edwards’ backyard of Prince George’s County and Ike Leggett in neighboring Montgomery County.

Edwards, predictably, is dismissive of endorsements even while she lists a number of local Prince George’s officials on her website. Perhaps of greatest significance is the absence of an endorsement for her from the Congressional Black Caucus. Newspaper reports suggest a combination of Baker’s support for Van Hollen and the difficulty some other caucus members have had in working with Edwards as the explanation.

One other endorsement that has received a lot of attention came from 2014 gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur. In an op/ed, Mizeur blasted Edwards for poor and unresponsive constituent services and contrasted that record to Van Hollen’s efforts.

The April 26 Primary is likely to be close. Women constitute roughly 60% of the turnout in a Democratic primary in Maryland while African-Americans make up 40% of the vote. Polls have shown a tight contest, but the next two weeks will be crucial.

Their respective bases may be the key. Will Van Hollen come out of Montgomery County with a large lead? His worry has to be the embarrassingly low turnout in that jurisdiction in recent primaries. Additionally, can Van Hollen do well enough in Baltimore County, which has been the pivotal area in so many Maryland elections?

Similarly, can Edwards run up a large majority in the county–Prince George’s– with the most Democratic voters? She also has to hope that a contested mayoral race in Baltimore City will result in higher than normal turnout, working to her advantage.

Between now and election day, there will be many ads, some of which will be misleading or totally inaccurate, such as Edwards’ discredited claim that Van Hollen supported cuts in social security. There may well be additional endorsements, although Mikulski has vowed to remain neutral. There will be get-out-the-vote efforts which will be more or less effective.

If you judge by record, experience and potential to be a worth successor to Mikulski, Chris Van Hollen is the clear choice. He has already demonstrated that he has the skills, temperament and drive to do the job. Emily’s List, in overlooking his unwavering support for issues that are paramount to their agenda, undercut its own credibility.  Edwards has to hope that voters will focus on symbolism over substance and ignore her thin record.

In an election where Democrats have a good chance to regain control of the Senate, nominating a candidate who can win in November and then be an effective member of a new majority is vitally important.  That candidate is Chris Van Hollen.