Members of the Western Charles Democratic Club grilled two candidates for U.S. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer’s seat last week on why each of them believed it was time for the 20-term incumbent to step aside for the next generation of party leaders in Congress.

Many of the questions that candidates Mckayla Wilkes and Briana Urbina fielded during the club’s October meeting at the Greene Turtle in La Plata turned on the issue of the potential consequences of replacing Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), whose seniority, several attendees pointed out, has benefited the three Southern Maryland counties and parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties that make up the district.

“I ask people not to look at it as if you’re losing something,” Wilkes said. “You can have seniority, and you can have that title of being the majority leader, but what are you doing with that title?”

Instead, Wilkes said, voters should think about what they would gain from electing someone new.

“You’re gaining someone who’s going to look out for your interests, who’s going to make this district better. ... The only way that we’re going to see that [change] is if we vote him out, to see the potential that we have and to see how great we can really be as a district.”

Urbina argued that congressional power is relative, and believed that over the course of the past year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y., 14th) has wielded more influence than Hoyer.

“Whenever she does anything, it’s reported on heavily,” she said. “Power is there for the taking, and when you speak truth to power, that’s when you have the power.”

Urbina agreed with Wilkes that “I don’t think you stand anything to lose [by] losing Steny Hoyer. I think you only have something to gain by having someone who’s going to be hungry to do the work, who’s desperate for your vote.”

Both candidates emphasized their humble beginnings as evidence that they understood the challenges that ordinary voters face. Wilkes stressed her Prince George’s County roots and the challenges of being raised by a single mother, as well as run-ins with the law as a juvenile for skipping school and as an adult for driving with a suspended license. Bronx native Urbina discussed her battles with addiction to alcohol and prescription painkillers and what it was like being a full-time caregiver for her younger brother while working her way through law school.

Unlike Hoyer, neither Urbina nor Wilkes are accepting corporate donations for their campaigns. Urbina claimed that both candidates together have raised more money from individual donors than Hoyer.

Even so, with six months to go before the primary election, so far Hoyer’s campaign is significantly out-raising both of his challengers’ campaigns. The latest Federal Election Commission filings show that Hoyer has received over $1.8 million in contributions as of the end of September; Wilkes, whose campaign has benefited from national media exposure, received just under $83,000 in contributions during that time, while Urbina’s campaign shows a little over $13,000 in contributions.

Both of the first-time candidates said they were running for Congress rather than seeking local and state offices first because the kind of change they wanted to effect could only be done at the federal level. For Wilkes, that includes Medicare for all, access to higher education, criminal justice and policing reform and protecting the rights of women and minorities. Urbina’s campaign issues include affordable housing, health care, civil and labor rights, and statehood for the District of Columbia.

Wilkes and Urbina both said they favored an anti-interventionist approach to foreign policy.

“We need a peace-based foreign policy,” said Wilkes, who described herself as both antiwar and anti-imperialist. “We need to value our troops and not just use them as tools of war.”

Urbina, who described herself as “definitely a neoliberal,” said that she wanted to see Congress reclaim the duty of declaring war rather than by presidential fiat. She pointed to the consequences of the recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

“No one is celebrating that decision right now,” Urbina said.

On the subject of President Trump, both candidates said they favored pushing ahead with the impeachment process currently underway in the House of Representatives.

“If we’re going to hold the president accountable, [if] we’re going to hold the administration accountable, then we need to hold them accountable, period,” Wilkes said. “There’s no sidestepping that.”

“I think articles of impeachment are warranted,” Urbina said. “The Mueller report [into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election] alone is just cause.”

Though they found themselves in agreement on many broad issues, Wilkes and Urbina did try to differentiate themselves from each other. Urbina stressed her law degree and credentials as a health care activist, while Wilkes emphasized her advocacy for the homeless and her participation in marches and rallies for public school funding and abortion rights.

Hoyer campaign spokesperson Annaliese Davis told the Maryland Independent that the congressman, who spoke to Western Charles Democratic Club members in August, is “uniquely able to serve his constituents” because of his seniority in the House, his legislative experience, and the “countless” relationships he has developed around the state.

“He frequently meets with constituents across the district to hear directly from them about the issues they care about, including expanding access to affordable, quality health care; addressing the climate crisis; improving access to affordable housing; creating good paying jobs in our communities; and improving our broken criminal justice system,” Davis said. “He is proud to represent them and their views, and does not base his positions on outside influence.”

Early voting for the primary election will take place from Thursday, April 16, through Thursday, April 23. The primary election will be held the following Tuesday, April 28.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will go on to face the Republican challenger in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews