In 2008 Donna F. Edwards won a special election to become the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Maryland. In her nine years in the House, Edwards earned a reputation as a leading progressive who worked to raise the minimum wage, invest in scientific research, and protect women from domestic violence. “People do want change,” she said during her primary campaign in 2008. “And the question is whether they have enough confidence and courage. Change is liberating, but it’s hard.”1
Donna F. Edwards was born in Yanceyville, North Carolina, on June 28, 1958, the second of six children. Her father, John Edwards, served in the United States Air Force, and her mother, Mary, was a homemaker. The family moved frequently with each new duty assignment. Edwards attended high school in New Mexico and graduated from North Carolina’s Wake Forest University in 1980 with an English degree. After college, Edwards worked as an assistant director for the United Nations Development Program before moving into the private sector. She later worked as a project engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. She then went to law school, earning a JD from Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1989. Edwards married and had one son, Jared, before she divorced her husband. During the separation, Edwards and her son briefly experienced homelessness, relying on a food pantry for meals, before moving in with her mother.2
Edwards began her public career with a series of nonprofit advocacy groups. “I have a passion for working in the nonprofit sector,” she recalled, “and I wasn’t willing to give it up.”3 In 1992 she joined Public Citizen and Congress Watch to advocate on consumer issues. Two years later, she moved to the Center for a New Democracy where she worked on campaign finance reform and rose to the position of executive director. In 1996 she helped found and lead the National Network to End Domestic Violence—an issue she confronted in her own marriage. In 2000 Edwards became the executive director of the Arca Foundation, a social equity and justice advocacy group.4
In 2006 Edwards challenged seven-term incumbent Representative Albert Russell Wynn in the Democratic primary for a seat in the United States House of Representatives from Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District. The district straddled Prince George’s County, Anne Arundel County, and Montgomery County in Maryland, and bordered the District of Columbia. Prince George’s County is predominantly African-American, and, together with Montgomery County, the district had a large population of federal workers; the district primarily voted Democratic. Edwards had started her campaign late in 2006, but it was well-funded, and she ran to the left of Wynn, who was known as a centrist. Edwards challenged Wynn’s support for the Iraq War and his ties with the business community. Her campaign caught fire through Internet bloggers who publicized her candidacy, drawing funds and celebrity endorsements from Barbra Streisand, Danny Glover, and Gloria Steinem.5 Wynn narrowly staved off Edwards’s challenge that year, winning by 50 percent to her 46 percent. Edwards began her 2008 campaign the day after her 2006 defeat.6
By the 2008 Democratic primary, Edwards had won the endorsement of MoveOn.org, the National Organization for Women, and EMILY’s List. Refusing to accept contributions from political action committees, she criticized Wynn for accepting campaign donations from special interests.7 Edwards won the 2008 primary, taking 59 percent of the vote to Wynn’s 37 percent.8 When Wynn resigned at the end of May, Maryland officials set a special election for June 17. Edwards won the special election over Republican challenger Peter James, a technology developer, 86 percent to 13 percent.9 She went on to win the full term later that fall and easily won re-election in all her subsequent races.10
Edwards’s committee assignments in the House reflected the interests and concerns of her constituents. Not only was she a former NASA employee, but her district sat adjacent to world-renowned Goddard Space Flight Center. Her district was also home to thousands of federal workers who commuted daily to the nation’s capital, often through heavy traffic. As such, Democratic leaders appointed her to the Science and Technology Committee (which was renamed Science, Space, and Technology in 2011) where she served on two subcommittees: Space (where she later became ranking member) and Environment. Edwards also had a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and served on three subcommittees: Highways and Transit; Water Resources and Environment; and Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management. During the 112th Congress (2011–2013) she also served on the Ethics Committee.11
Edwards used her seat on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee to support funding for NASA and to give a boost to measures encouraging minority education in science and mathematics.12 On Transportation and Infrastructure, Edwards took an interest in mass transit legislation, specifically on projects to improve rail traffic in the Washington metropolitan area. She used her seat on the committee to question federal agencies about the lack of funding for projects in her district, “making them answer questions about why there was this kind of disparity and pushing them to open up the doors of opportunity for this majority African-American county,” she later said.13 She promoted the addition of rail service to connect the two northern ends of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system (commonly called Metro) with a new purple line and to investigate the possibility of rail service on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland to Virginia south of the District.14
On national issues, Edwards supported a resolution to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and remained critical of the pace of the troop withdrawal from Iraq.15 In 2008 she only voted for the financial-services bailout after a direct appeal by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.16 Two of her recurring pieces of legislation included the WAGES Act—introduced in 2009, 2011, and 2013—which sought to raise the national minimum wage, and her 21st Century Investment Act—introduced in four straight Congresses (111th though the 114th [2009–2017])—which would have improved the tax incentives for conducting research in the United States.17
Alongside her legislative interests, she assisted in candidate recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2012 before being tapped by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to lead the effort in 2014.18 Edwards later said she enjoyed “talking to prospective candidates to recruit them, but also identifying candidates that hadn’t come through the traditional sources by calling my friends in organized labor and my friends in the nonprofit sector across the country saying, ‘Who do you know?’”19 Alongside her campaign work, Edwards served as co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which helped drive the party’s agenda in the House.20 “She’s already achieved a status in the caucus, title or not, as a go-to person, a leader,” Pelosi said of Edwards in 2014.21
When Barbara A. Mikulski announced her retirement from the U.S. Senate, Edwards declared her candidacy for the open seat in March 2015, pledging to champion “the middle-class American dream.” She quickly won the endorsement of EMILY’s List and other progressive groups, but the Congressional Black Caucus refused to endorse either her or her Democratic challenger, fellow Maryland Representative Christopher Van Hollen. Edwards ended up losing to Van Hollen in the primary, 53 to 39 percent.22 In her concession speech, Edwards voiced a number of concerns about the future of her party, including issues she had faced in the House during her career on the Hill. “What I want to know from my Democratic Party is, when will the voices of people of color, when will the voices of women, when will the voices of labor, when will the voices of black women, when will our voices be effective, legitimate equal leaders in a big-tent party?”23
After finishing her term in the 114th Congress (2015–2017), Edwards got behind the wheel of an RV she christened “Lucille” and drove around the country, visiting national parks and spending time at historic sites, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. She used the trip to connect to people and places “who are not centered around Washington,” she said in an interview midway through her travels. Improving access and opportunities for underrepresented communities remained forefront during her cross-country trip. “There are 104 women who serve in the United States Congress, a very small percentage of them are Black and Brown women,” she said. “We need many more women in every step of our elected office.”24
1Robert Draper, “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016,” 17 May 2015, New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/magazine/the-great-democratic-crack-up-of-2016.html; Kevin Merida, “On an Icy Day, A Challenger Wins Her Heated Contest,” 13 February 2008, Washington Post: C1.
2Almanac of American Politics, 2016 (Arlington, VA: Columbia Books & Information Services, 2015): 858; Rosalind S. Helderman, “Candidate Armed with Self-Assurance on Campaign Trail,” 12 June 2008, Washington Post: B6; “Donna Edwards,” Huffington Post, accessed 25 January 2017, https://huffingtonpost.com/author/donna-edwards (link discontinued); Politics in America, 2012 (Washington, DC: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 452–453.
3Helderman, “Candidate Armed with Self-Assurance on Campaign Trail.”
4Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 856, 858.
5Ovetta Wiggins, “Edwards Runs Tough Race Against Wynn,” 9 September 2006, Washington Post: B2.
6James Wright, “Edwards Gives Wynn a Scare,” 16–22 September 2006, Afro-American Red Star (Washington, DC): A1; James Wright, “Wynn Squeaks by Edwards,” 7–13 October 2006, Afro-American Red Star (Washington, DC): A1; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 858.
7John McArdle, “Attack of the Outsiders in Md.,” 16 January 2008, Roll Call: 1; Rosalind S. Helderman, “Wynn-Edwards Matchup Called a Bellwether Race,” 10 February 2008, Washington Post: C5.
8Carla Peay, “Edwards Defeats Wynn for 4th District Congressional Seat,” 14–20 February 2008, Washington Informer: 36; Tia Carol Jones, “Wynn Vows to Help with Transition,” 21–27 February 2008, Washington Informer: 7.
9Helderman, “Candidate Armed with Self-Assurance on Campaign Trail”; Draper, “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016”; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 858.
10Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 859; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”
11Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present.”
12Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 859.
13“The Honorable Donna F. Edwards Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (29 June 2018): 27. The interview transcript is available online.
14Politics in America, 2012: 452.
15Draper, “The Great Democratic Crack-Up of 2016”; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 859; Politics in America, 2012: 452.
16Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 470.
17WAGES Act, H.R. 2570, 111th Cong. (2009); WAGES Act, H.R. 631, 112th Cong. (2011); WAGES Act, H.R. 650, 113th Cong. (2013); 21st Century Investment Act of 2010, H.R. 6201, 111th Cong. (2010); 21st Century Investment Act of 2011, H.R. 689, 112th Cong. (2011); 21st Century Investment Act of 2013, H.R. 3537, 113th Cong. (2013); 21st Century Investment Act of 2015, H.R. 1852, 114th Cong. (2015).
18Sean Sullivan, “Rep. Donna Edwards to Chair DCCC’s ‘Red to Blue’ Program,” 1 May 2014, Washington Post: n.p.; Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 859.
19“Edwards Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 35.
20Almanac of American Politics, 2016: 858–859.
21Kissah Thompson, “Donna Edwards Wants Women to Follow Her into Politics, Where She’s Happy to Lead,” 30 September 2014, Washington Post: C1.
22Dmitriy Shapiro, “Vastly Different Candidates,” 27 May 2015, Baltimore Jewish Times: 40, 42; Rachel Weiner, “Congressional Black Caucus PAC Won’t Endorse Rep. Donna Edwards,” 12 February 2016, Washington Post: n.p.; “Official 2016 Presidential Primary Election Results for U.S. Senator,” Maryland state board of elections, accessed 17 March 2020, https://elections.maryland.gov/elections/2016/results/primary/gen_results_2016_3_007-.html.
23Ovetta Wiggins, “Here’s What Donna Edwards Said after She Lost Her Senate Bid in Maryland,” 27 April 2016, Washington Post: n.p.
24William J. Ford, “Edward Among Eight Inducted into MD Hall of Fame,” 9 March 2017, Washington Informer: 30.