Rep. Edwards Joins the Members-Only Club

After Defeating Wynn in Primary, New Rep. Tries to Break the Ice on Capitol Hill

Posted June 20, 2008 at 5:59pm

By Tory Newmyer

ROLL CALL STAFF

It can be tough being the new person on the team, especially when you gain your spot by benching a squad favorite.

By that logic, newly minted Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) — who defeated eight-term Rep. Albert Wynn in a bruising February primary — should be bracing for an awkward freshman year, especially within the clubby confines of the Congressional Black Caucus.

All outward appearances suggest Edwards spent her first two days in the House last week making fast friends. And elders of the CBC, who rallied fiercely behind Wynn earlier this year, said now that the race is over, they will welcome her into their ranks.

But veterans of similar races — who won primaries against incumbent members of an ethnic caucus they later joined — said it will take time for Edwards to win full acceptance.

“You just took one of their buddies out, one who’s been their longtime friend,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who ousted then-Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Ciro Rodriguez (D) in a 2004 primary before winning the general election and joining the CHC. “People might be a little hostile at the beginning. … It’s a human reaction, and it’s natural.”

Former Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.), who knocked off CBC member Cynthia McKinney (D) in a 2002 primary, acknowledged that some lawmakers were slower to warm to her once she joined the caucus, “and obviously when you have people who work together closely, that’s to be expected.”

For her part, Edwards said her reception has been “very, very warm.”

“We all have been in politics and understand that stuff and get over it,” she said. “I cannot tell you how incredibly helpful and warm and generous people have been.”

It was in that spirit on Thursday that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — who helped direct funding to Wynn’s campaign, including $10,000 from his own leadership political action committee — introduced Edwards to the House after her swearing in. “We are extraordinarily proud that you have joined us,” he said. “Our delegation will be stronger, better and more representative because of that. And this institution will be stronger for the strong advocacy that you will bring on behalf not just of the people of the 4th Congressional district, but the people of this nation.”

Edwards took the opportunity of votes that afternoon and evening and Friday morning to gamely work the floor, chatting up a broad cross-section of her new colleagues. Several of them were CBC members, including Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Gwen Moore (Wis.) and André Carson (Ind.).

On Friday morning, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who recently gave birth, introduced herself and invited Edwards to a reception to meet the newborn. Later, during the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act vote, Edwards talked to Hoyer and Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.).

In interviews, two of Wynn’s closest friends in the CBC said Edwards will find no antipathy in the caucus. “Everybody here are adults and we’re politically seasoned. Elections are held, and sometimes our friends don’t get re-elected, and that’s the nature of the process,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), who was in Wynn’s freshman class, and the same national fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. “It doesn’t prevent us from opening our arms to new Members.”

Similarly, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said, “The beat rolls on.”

“Al Wynn is a friend, and I hate that he lost,” Meeks said. “Of course, with any new Member, you feel them out. There’s a feel-out process, and that will happen. But you don’t come with any pent-up hard feelings. At least I don’t.”

Of course, Edwards isn’t the first CBC member to join the group after defeating another member in a primary. In addition to Majette, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) won his seat by challenging then-Rep. Earl Hilliard (D) in 2002. Both contests became proxy fights over American foreign policy in Israel. But for many established CBC members, the races represented the threat that they could face similar challenges from upstart politicians.

“Call it the Barack Obama effect, where younger members in people’s districts think, ‘Hey, I can do this, too,’” one Democratic strategist said, referring to now-Sen. Obama’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000. “People are becoming more emboldened now to push forward and see what they can do.”

In Edwards race against Wynn, the fault line was not foreign policy, but labor. Though Wynn compiled a 100 percent record on the Service Employees International Union’s voting scorecard in 2007, the group pumped more than $1 million into Edwards’ campaign, a move that infuriated CBC members.

Following Edwards’ win, simmering tension from the win compelled SEIU President Andrew Stern to meet with the caucus in an attempt to defuse it.

Going forward, Edwards can expect “cordial” relations with Wynn’s staunchest allies in the caucus, the strategist said. “But are there going to be best buddies between Edwards and Wynn’s best friends? It’s going to take time, because of the circumstances and how she was elected.”

In Cuellar’s case, he said some CHC members communicated their initial unease with him through body language, while others were more direct. “Some people said, ‘I’m going to be straight with you. I don’t know you and I don’t trust you,’” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, that’s fine. In time, we’ll get to know each other.’”

“There were days when I said, ‘Man, this is tough. I want to go back to Texas, where I was a popular guy,’” he said. “But once people get to know you, and see you don’t have horns,” they warmed up, he said.

His strategy with those slower to come around, he said, was persistence. “You’ve got to keep reaching out,” he said.

Majette said her reception, for the most part, was “very positive.”

Anyone harboring a grudge, she said, “didn’t concern me, because I knew I was going to do a job to represent my constituents as well as I could. … I didn’t let it get in the way of going there and reaching out to everyone.”

Her strategy was to focus on the work at hand. “When I got there and started working, and people could see I was committed to working for the district in a way that would bring dignity to the office — that helped to open up some doors that enabled me to serve my constituents well when I was there,” said Majette, who is now practicing law outside Atlanta, doing real estate work, and finishing a book.