Maryland's Donna Edwards: Emerging Leader, Liberal Maverick
State's first black congresswoman opposes Obama war-funding plan
WASHINGTON - When Congress gives President Barack Obama more funds later this month for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, only one Maryland lawmaker is expected to dissent: Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards.
Edwards believes the president is taking the U.S. in the wrong direction in Afghanistan. She argues that Obama has no plan for winning and no strategy for getting out.
Congress "failed" its responsibility to challenge President George W. Bush's policies in Iraq, Edwards said in an interview. "And we can't make that mistake with President Obama."
After less than a year in the job, the first black woman elected to Congress from Maryland has stamped herself as the most liberal member of the state's congressional delegation. She is also building a national following on the left.
"We see her as an emerging leader, and I think she will really be a dynamic force in the Congress," said Robert L. Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, which gave her a prominent place on the agenda at the liberal group's conference in Washington this week.
It's a heady ascent for the 50-year-old lawyer from Prince George's County, who had never held public office until last June. But standing up to a highly popular president from her own party - one whose margin of victory in her district was larger than any other in the state - seems right in character.
Edwards got her start in politics as a local activist, fighting plans for the $2 billion National Harbor project on the Potomac. The developer eventually agreed to her demand for residential housing at the hotel-retail complex.
The single mother of a college-age son then took on Rep. Al Wynn, her one-time boss as a Maryland state senator. Running to his left and attacking his support for the war in Iraq, she nearly upset the veteran Democrat in the 2006 primary; last year, she finished him off.
Like others on the left, Edwards is unhappy with some of Obama's early pragmatic decisions, such as withholding photos of Abu Ghraib detainee abuses (releasing them would be "part of how we reach the rest of the world," she contends) or taking a single-payer health care option off the table before congressional negotiations even started ("not helpful").
"I think at his core the president is one of us," Edwards told activists during a panel discussion at the conference. By bringing pressure from the left, liberals can "open up the political space for this president to do what his gut wants him to do anyway."
Three weeks ago, Edwards took the House floor in opposition to Obama's Afghanistan policy.
The president, she said, would "commit our servicemen and women to a war without end."
She was the only Marylander to vote against Obama's $96.7 million war funding request, which gained initial House approval on a bipartisan vote of 368-60, with 51 Democratic liberals opposed. A final vote is expected Friday.
Her "no" vote put her at odds with some on the left whose enthusiasm for Obama outweighs their doubts about his war plan. Moveon.org, which gained power as an antiwar group and was an influential part of an online coalition that backed Edwards, did nothing on the war funding vote, for example.
The hawkish Washington Post editorial board criticized her, but Edwards said she had given the issue considerable study and traveled to Afghanistan just days before opposing Obama's request.
They "may have called me naive for that" vote, she told the liberal activists. "But if we don't ask the questions now, we'll be asking ourselves these questions ten years from now, I guarantee that."
Another foreign-policy move that generated criticism was her refusal to support a measure that recognized Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas and blamed the Islamist movement for casualties in Gaza Strip fighting that flared in late December 2008. The Jan. 9 resolution was approved 390-5, with Edwards and 20 others voting "present."
It was "the wrong resolution at the wrong time," and not in the best interest of resolving the crisis, she explained after the vote. But Politico reported this week that Edwards had alienated some in the Jewish community in the Washington suburbs, who question the depth of her support for Israel.
"Look, I voted 'present' on a resolution that was apparently very important to the Jewish lobby. And so, obviously, that's going to result in an expression of, whatever, concern and questions," Edwards said during the interview in her House office.
She calls Israel "a really important ally" and says she's a strong supporter of the Jewish state. But "even with allies and partners, it's important for the United States also to stake out our own security interests and work with our allies and partners on those."
Edwards recently came back from a six-day trip to Israel, sponsored by the nonpartisan New America Foundation, that included a visit to the Gaza Strip. She said she backs Obama's efforts to secure a Mideast peace, including his call for a freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
In another foray into foreign policy politics, she was one of five members of Congress arrested and taken into custody in late April outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in a protest against that government's human rights record in Darfur.
Her involvement raised questions about what kind of representative Edwards intended to be: a gadfly or a workhorse, a bomb-thrower or a serious inside player?
"I want to do what's right by people in my congressional district and in the country," she said. "I think people, at this early stage ... would describe me as somebody who's really thoughtful and careful and who does her homework."
At this early stage, some Democratic activists also describe the ambitious newcomer as a future statewide candidate, one with significant potential in party politics.
"She's a true believer," which would be an advantage in a Democratic primary contest, said Eddie Eitches, president of an American Federation of Government Employees local.
Edwards admits that she doesn't see "congresswoman" as the last job title on her professional resume. But she laughs off speculation about a run some day for the Senate.
"Oh, gosh," she responded and, referring to herself in the third person, added that "she's going to do her job in the United States Congress, is what she's going to do."
That, and move soon into a new home - a luxury National Harbor condo that she fought to make part of the waterfront development.