Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why Donna Edwards' Victory Matters

Why Donna Edwards' Victory Matters

By Steve Benen

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I received an email recently from a friend of mine with a reasonable question: why is it that so many Dems are so worked up about the Democratic primary fight in Maryland's 4th congressional district? He could understand people in the area showing an interest, but the contest between incumbent Rep. Al Wynn (D) and challenger Donna Edwards (D) had captured the attention of bloggers and activists across the country. What's the big deal?

TNR's Jonathan Chait summarized the point nicely today.

Last year I wrote a column ... about how significant elements of the Congressional Black Caucus had been corrupted by K Street, and advocated measures like estate tax repeal or the bankrputcy bill that harm their own constituents. The most egregious case by far was Maryland's Al Wynn, who has evolved into a virtual appendage of the business lobby. One of the people I interviewed for the column was Donna Edwards, a good-government liberal who challenged Wynn in the primary two years ago, and again yesterday.

Edwards won a resounding victory. Hopefully Wynn's defeat will be a useful example to Democrats everywhere that there is a price to be paid for following K Street over the interest of the country or their own constituents.

Was Wynn really that bad? Without question. He partnered with right-wing crooks like Bob Ney to oppose campaign-finance reform; he partnered with right-wing lobbyists on the estate tax; he partnered with right-wing lawmakers on the ridiculous bankruptcy bill; and he partnered with right-wing hedge-fund managers on the private equity tax break. It wasn't just corporate lobbyists, either -- Wynn also voted with Bush on Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy.

What's more, while Wynn was uniquely unreliable as a Democratic incumbent, Donna Edwards was uniquely extraordinary as a Democratic challenger.

When Edwards defeated Wynn yesterday -- as she did, decisively -- it marked an important milestone for the party.

There are, to be sure, plenty of Democratic lawmakers who are unreliable on key issues. Most of them come from competitive districts, and so it's easier to cut them at least a little slack now and then -- these lawmakers know that if they vote with the party on some high-profile bills, their careers are in jeopardy, and an even less reliable Republican will replace them. I think some of these right-leaning Dems would be pleasantly surprised if they tested this belief more often, but they're in a tough spot. I get it.

Wynn, however, represented a bluer-than-blue district, facing token GOP opposition, if he faced opposition at all. And he still became a lawmaker beholden to corporate lobbyists, not because he needed their support to stay in office, but because he actually seemed to agree with them.

In contrast, Donna Edwards will use this seat to become a champion of the progressive agenda, and she'll be rewarded indefinitely by her liberal constituents.

Best of all, this primary fight was a test, which we passed with flying colors. As Ezra explained:

[Edwards'] victory was by no means assured, as Terry Samuels pointed out, "Wynn has the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer as well as the endorsements of NARAL and the AFL-CIO; Edwards has the backing of the maverick Service Employees International Union and the liberal blogosphere, including Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga."

And the mavericks won.... As Matt correctly says, "the tree of progressive politics must be watered with the metaphorical blood of sellouts ever now and again. Some people seem to me to walk around in their head with a model in which politicians are very principled ideologues who then divert from their default status due to electoral fears. In a more plausible schematic, they have a natural tendency to drift in the direction of utter corruption and only electoral fear keeps them doing their jobs in a somewhat responsible manner." Wynn's loss will help power that fear for years to come. Primaries are the countervailing power that progressive activists can exert against corporate influence, and it's a deeply healthy development that the Left has begun using them successfully.

It's a very good day.

Steve Benen is a freelance writer/researcher and creator of The Carpetbagger Report. In addition, he is the lead editor of's Blog Report, and has been a contributor to Talking Points Memo, Washington Monthly, Crooks & Liars, The American Prospect, and the Guardian.

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