Maryland’s primary election is about nine months away, and congressional hopefuls have already started to file their bids against U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th).
Despite sitting on opposite sides of the political aisle, the three first-time office seekers (two Democrats, one Republican, all people of color) said they were inspired by the historic win last year of progressive candidate Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y., 14th), the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, who unseated Democrat Joe Crowley. The upset was hailed by some as an illustration of voters’ disillusionment with establishment politics, and a marker of a leftward shift in the national Democrat party.
And moving into the 2020 election, many are wondering if history will repeat itself.
‘How hard could it be?’
Ocasio-Cortez “graduated from some university … with an economics degree, that has nothing to do with politics,” Bryan Cubero, Hoyer’s sole Republican challenger so far, said last month. “But I figure if she can do it, how hard could it be? … If a person who’s never run for office before can become president, then someone who’s never run for office before can become a congressman.”
“The primary reason I’m running for Congress is because I don’t like the idea that people in this country have been brainwashed into thinking that to be a politician, you’ve got to go to law school,” the 50-year-old Lexington Park resident said.
“They know so much, they know how to break it without breaking it — twist it and distort it to bend the spirit of the law, and I don’t like that. Laws should be written so the average person with a high school education should understand,” he said.
Cubero sustained injuries as a paratrooper and combat engineer in the U.S. Army, having served from 1986 to 1991, he said. Although a registered Republican, Cubero doesn’t think of himself as a toe-the-line party member.
“I do have independent leanings,” he said, noting freedom is his guiding tenet. “I think they have curtailed our Constitution way too much. … Government shouldn’t be meddling in our lives that much.”
The Washington, D.C., native, born to Puerto Rican parents, moved to St. Mary’s in 2003 with his wife, a Bolivian immigrant. Cubero highlighted immigration control, healthcare and prison reform as topping his list of legislative priorities. In many ways, his platform is atypical of a Republican candidate.
Health care has to “be done in such a way that it’s affordable. … Americans, you can’t just let them die in the street, and you can’t turn them away when they go to the emergency room,” he said.
On prison reform, Cubero said nonviolent first time offenders should be required to complete volunteer hours in lieu of jail time. The United States puts “too many people in jail. That’s where maybe me and other Republicans differ,” he said. “Jail is for people who committed violent crimes.”
On immigration, Cubero said, “You do have to have a wall or barrier” at U.S. borders.
Locally, Cubero said one of his priorities would be to explore a mass transit route from Washington to Charles County. A light rail has been proposed from the Branch Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County to White Plains, but with little headway thus far.
Cubero’s run, like the pair of Democratic challengers, is predicated on a frustration with the current representation in U.S. politics and its “pay-to-play” nature, Cubero said.
“If you’ve got term limits for presidents and governors, why wouldn’t you have term limits for congressmen and senators?” Cubero said. “They amass so much power that nobody could challenge their authority. … Congressman Hoyer has amassed too much power.”
‘I want to build on those things he’s done’
“A lot of people, myself included, have respect for Steny Hoyer and his accomplishments,” Democrat candidate Briana Urbina, a Prince George’s County resident, said. “I want to build on those things he’s done,” like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Hoyer cosponsored, and which she wants to see “fully funded” along with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she noted.
“But then there’s this resistance that’s grown, and that only happens when someone’s been in office for as long as he has,” Urbina said.
Hoyer, 80, has represented the fifth district, which encompasses parts of St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, since 1981.
“In a way, we’ve been handicapped in having the [House] majority leader as our congressman, because he has chosen not to lead on anything that does not have the unanimous consent of the party,” Urbina added.
Urbina, born and raised by Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx, N.Y., moved to Maryland with her wife in 2014, and is the caretaker for her brother, who has intellectual disabilities, and the legal guardian of a former student whom she taught as a special educator in a public charter school. The attorney said her “history of service” sets her apart in the 2020 race.
“This is an expansion of the work I’ve only ever done,” Urbina said. After working as a housing attorney representing evicted families in the Washington area, the 34-year-old taught elementary special education through Teach for America from 2015 to 2017.
“I made more money as a teacher than I did as a lawyer,” she said, noting her assistance to DACA students and as a disability attorney. “That’s the kind of lawyer [work] I took.”
Her platform reflects that work — if elected, Urbina said the first bill she will introduce would put a moratorium on the closure of public housing units.
“We should be not closing a single unit of public housing when people are sleeping in the streets, in the woods, under bridges,” the New Carrollton resident said.
“Steny Hoyer doesn’t have an affordable housing page on his website. How can he represent us if his priorities aren’t our priorities?” Urbina said.
Urbina lists criminal justice reform, education and civil rights as her other priorities. She wants to see de-privatized prisons and repeal mandatory minimum sentencing. She would seek to invest federal funding in programs for veteran students in secondary education and for students with disabilities. Urbina supports “Medicare for All,” from which Hoyer has distanced himself, and is a supporter of the Green New Deal.
“We have a lot of environmental challenges in our district specifically that would be greatly benefitted by the package of the Green New Deal,” Urbina said, adding that better public transportation in Southern Maryland is rolled into that.
“The Green New Deal calls for the ‘overhauling’ of our transportation systems in order to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector,” including zero-emission vehicle manufacturing and clean, accessible public transit and high-speed rails, Urbina penned in an open letter to Hoyer, shared with The Enterprise.
On policy alone, Urbina and the other Democratic challenger in next spring’s primary election, Mckayla Wilkes, seem to be in lockstep.
‘I turned my life around’
Wilkes has already garnered national media attention. Running on the heels of AOC’s win, news outlets from Buzzfeed to The Intercept are heralding the 29-year-old as, potentially, the next woman to oust a longstanding Democrat leader.
“I think it’s just a compelling story, if you think about it,” Wilkes said about the national buzz. The Prince George’s native and current Waldorf resident said her legislative goals, which include criminal justice reform, addressing climate change and affordable housing access, are personal for her.
“The way that I was, the route I was going, I shouldn’t be here right now. But I turned my life around,” she said.
Wilkes was raised by a single mother after her father was murdered before she was born, she said.
Her aunt, who “played a huge part in raising me as well,” was presumed dead in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
In processing her aunt’s death, “That’s when I had my first run in with the criminal justice system,” she said. Wilkes said she was sent to juvenile detention for skipping school and running away from home, but “I wasn’t getting rehabilitated. It was strictly punishment.”
Speaking openly about being jailed for not being able to pay fines associated with driving with a suspended license in 2014, Wilkes said “I started to realize it was an entire system, and it was bigger than the individuals. That’s when I started to get into politics, which brings me to where I am today, running for Congress.”
Ending private prison practices and the use of cash bail, bolstering treatment programs for inmates struggling with mental health and addiction, and making minimum wage available to incarcerated workers are among Wilkes’ priorities on prison reform.
Currently studying political science at Northern Virginia Community College with aspirations to pursue a law degree and work in the state attorney’s office, Wilkes said, “I am the people who I want to vote for me. … When I look at Congress I don’t see people who look like me, I don’t see people my age or who have my background.”
On the campaign trail, Wilkes said “a lot of people feel as though they’re forgotten. … When you ask them what they want, they want housing and health care. I’ve spoken to people who are homeless, they want shelters to go to, they want opportunities to pull themselves up. … Our veterans feel forgotten, our labor unions feel forgotten.”
Locally, Wilkes said she intends to push for “housing for all” in the district, at a cost of $40 billion in federal money.
“It’s completely affordable, if you look at the money we spend in our defense budget, it wouldn’t even be half,” she said.
“It means everyone who is eligible for [housing] vouchers will get them. Only 20% of people eligible for housing assistance receive it,” she said.
Recently, Wilkes wrapped up a circuit speaking across Southern Maryland about the Green New Deal, and what it could mean to the region; beyond efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay health, it would bring more union jobs in the renewables sector and pave the way for mass transit here, she said.
Like Urbina, Wilkes is a proponent of Medicare for All.
Hoyer “supports access to health care [but] access to healthcare does not mean that you will get healthcare,” Wilkes said.
“These are my neighbors. These are the people I’m fighting for. … For [Hoyer], it’s all about politics. For me it’s personal,” she said.
Unique ‘strengths’ touted
“Mr. Hoyer’s seniority in the House of Representatives, legislative experience, and countless relationships throughout the Fifth District are strengths that make him uniquely able to serve his constituents,” Annaliese Davis, spokesperson for Hoyer, said in an emailed response.
Hoyer’s accomplishments during his tenure are extensive — on a national scale, the congressman has touted his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of his proudest achievements.
Locally, the Mechanicsville resident has reportedly bolstered regional economic development by creating or saving nearly 23,000 jobs across the district over the course of multiple base realignments and closures, according to his campaign website. Recently, he saw to fruition a years-long effort to build a community-based outpatient clinic in Charlotte Hall for veterans in the region.
Despite his challengers’ criticism on Hoyer’s resistance to support the Green New Deal, the congressman received a lifetime score of 81% on the League of Conservation Voters’ national environmental scorecard, and has secured millions in federal dollars to improve conditions in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Medicare For All supporters, particularly Urbina, have also called Hoyer out for his alignment with corporate PAC donors; the House leader is the third largest Democrat recipient of campaign donations from players in the health industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and noted by Urbina when she and her supporters protested outside Hoyer’s annual bull roast in June.
So far, Hoyer has amassed $1.28 million this year through June 30. Wilkes has garnered over $51,600, and Urbina has received $10,219 in contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission. Cubero has not started fundraising yet.
Despite the growing support for Medicare for All among congressional Democrats (the Medicare for All Act of 2019 has 117 House sponsors), Hoyer has continued to champion the Affordable Care Act, and has said he is committed to preserving it.
Hoyer has routinely and easily fended off congressional challengers in the past, beating out primary challenger Dennis Fritz by 84% in 2018, and winning 70% of the vote in the general election. Despite Americans’ growing wariness of political insiders and excitement at the prospect of “draining the swamp,” Southern Maryland voters on April 28, 2020, will be the ones to decide if ousting the 20-term incumbent is worth turning the tide.