Two years after his failed bid to become Maryland’s first black governor, Anthony Brown has set his sights on a different prize: a seat in Congress.
But his broad name recognition and the favorable demographics that greet him in his home county don't guarantee him victory in the six-candidate Democratic primary on April 26.
The race to replace Rep. Donna Edwards, who is running for Senate, has drawn a strong slate of candidates, including Glenn Ivey, a well-financed former Prince George's County prosecutor, and Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a state legislator with strong ties in the Latino community.
Beyond the competition among themselves, the candidates are finding they have to make it clear that they're not running against the popular Edwards, simply trying to fill an open seat.
“We’ve had to change our script on our phone banking to lead with, ‘Anthony is running Congress. He’s not running against Donna. She’s running for the Senate,’ because voters really like her,” Brown said.
Maryland’s 4th District covers most of central Prince George’s County, takes in a sliver of the county bordering Montgomery then moves east into Anne Arundel County, mostly the rural and suburban areas outside of Annapolis. More than half of the residents are African American, about a third are white, and the remaining are Latino, Asian and other minorities. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report considers the district a safe Democratic seat .
The majority of the district's Democrats live in Prince George's, a suburb of Washington, D.C., that boasts one of the nation's largest middle-class black populations. Edwards, who has represented the district since 2008, has not endorsed in the race.
Before his eight years as Maryland's lieutenant governor and his 2014 race for the governor's spot, Brown represented a piece of Prince George's in the state legislature.
“I’m running this race more like my House of Delegates race than my gubernatorial race,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s very retail. .… It’s very much Anthony Brown to the voter, sharing my values, my experience, my record.”
Brown says he’s canvassed the entire 4th District, knocking on doors, visiting churches and senior centers and the like. He cites his experience as lieutenant governor, a state delegate, a colonel in the Army Reserve and a private attorney.
“I think I bring a breadth of experience that sets me apart from the other candidates,” he said, noting his desire to serve in Congress as part of his lifelong devotion to public service.
Most Americans are looking for more responsive government, not smaller government, Brown said. That’s why he says he plans to ensure the federal government is responsive to constituents as they apply for Pell grants, small business loans and such.
Brown faces tough competition from Ivey, the former county prosecutor who has maintained a fundraising advantage throughout the race.
Ivey says he has a strong grassroots base in Prince George’s County, where in eight years as state’s attorney he helped bring crime rates down to 30-year lows and launched intervention and prevention programs to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.
“I feel like my record plays well with everybody because that’s the way we governed,” Ivey said. “We worked from the standpoint of inclusion, and it was effective. I think that’s helping me out now.”
As Congress is considering an overhaul of the criminal justice system and debating how to address the opioid and heroin epidemics, Ivey says he has a unique perspective to offer from his time as state’s attorney and his experience in private practice. His desire to run for Congress stems back to his experience working for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in the late 1980s.
Peña-Melnyk is also mounting a strong campaign, with support from Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political action committee. Together, those groups have invested a few hundred thousand dollars into her campaign.
Peña-Melnyk, the only woman candidate in the 4th District race, has passed more than 50 bills in her nine years as a state delegate in District 21, but what she prides herself the most on is the work she does for her constituents outside of Annapolis.
“I have gotten the calls over the last nine years,” she said, noting she’s helped constituents facing foreclosure stay in their homes, people without healthcare find a provider, veterans who need help find a counselor and special education students get the services they need.
“I have never ever worked less than 50 hours a week, seven days a week, and it’s supposed to be a part time job,” she said. “I decided to run because I want to continue the service.”
Although Brown, Ivey and Peña-Melnyk are the candidates who have poured the most money into the race, three other contenders are seeking the House seat.
Warren Christopher said he has put in the most “sweat equity.” Christopher, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former chief of staff at the Department of Interior, is hoping to expand his support from his 2014 primary challenge against Edwards. He won 13 percent of the vote compared to Edwards’s 87 percent in that race.
Matthew Fogg, a former deputy U.S. Marshal, and Terrence Strait, an Army veteran and former Census Bureau statitician, have participated in the dozens of candidate forums that have been held throughout the district and promoted themselves online but lack the manpower of the other campaigns.
On the issues, the candidates don’t greatly differ. They all vow to direct resources to Prince George's County’s lagging school system, help prevent foreclosures for many homeowners whose mortgages are worth more than the value of their homes, and fight for the FBI to locate its new headquarters in Prince George’s County.
Alexi Sanchez attended a recent candidates forum in his hometown of Hyattsville not knowing any of the candidates except for Brown. After the forum, he had narrowed down his choice to Brown and Ivey, whom he said were the most poised and professional and have records he can research.
“At least there is something to look at,” Sanchez said.
Joanne Butty of Avondale said she was drawn to Ivey and Brown because of their experience and how they spoke with more authority. Peña-Melnyk was not at the forum. Butty’s friend Regina Ikard said she was deciding between Ivey, who has the history and name recognition, and Christopher, who she said showed a “fresh mental focus.”
Christopher, Fogg and Strait are running as outsiders. They acknowledged they are at a disadvantage when it comes to money and name recognition but are relying on voters who want to see different leaders in office.
“There’s some negativity associated with that name recognition,” Christopher said of his more well known opponents. “People view some of the people in this race as not being able to connect with them.”
Christopher talks about his experience as a single father raising two daughters and a commander leading troops into combat. One of the many issues Christopher is passionate about is expanding government contract opportunities for small minority-owned businesses.
Fogg has run for office before, but he considers himself more of a whistleblower and an activist than a politician. He won a lengthy legal battle against the U.S. Attorney General in a case where he alleged the U.S. Marshals Service had discriminated against him and other black marshals. Fogg has continued to fight against discrimination, participating in activist efforts in Ferguson, Missouri, and other areas where black men have been killed by police offers in recent years.
His primary motivation to run for Congress is to push for a criminal justice overhaul and other changes to what he sees as a broken legal system that disproportionately targeted minority communities.
Strait, a longtime observer of politics, has a broader focus. He wants to be elected to Congress so he can help change the political conversation and encourage members to start focusing on long-term planning instead of governing by crisis.
Metro’s just one example Strait cited, noting that if the government had invested more money for routine maintenance there wouldn’t be talk now of shutting down a whole line for several months at a time. The need to make investments now to prevent future crises applies to other areas like clean energy, he said.
“We didn’t go to the moon in two years,” Strait said. “We are not going to fix our environment or economy in two years.”