WASHINGTON — Donna Edwards wanted to get straight to the point.
Inside her Baltimore campaign office last month, Edwards met with local activists from black-led racial justice organizations. They had led protests following the death of Freddie Gray,. Her plan was as simple as the subject was complex: to hear from the activists directly. About the problems. About the solutions. And about places where, as their representative in the United States Senate, she could place resources to help them get things done.
For the activists, her approach was refreshing.
There is no public record of the meeting between the activists and Edwards on her campaign’s social media channels or her campaign's public schedule. A spokesperson from the Edwards campaign, citing an agreement not to disclose details of the meeting with the press, declined to discuss the gathering in any detail. But at a tense moment in politics and activism, Edwards, herself an activist, has taken her roots to the streets in Baltimore, endearing herself and her candidacy to young activists.
“That was the first time in the work I’ve done that an elected official talked directly to us about supporting us in tangible ways, instead of just tweeting about it,” said Adam Jackson, the CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) Baltimore in an interview.
Jackson and other activists said Edwards has become an ally in her short time as a candidate. The state of Maryland, is a third black and brown — and the activists say the community deserves a person in the Senate who can speak directly to their concerns about high unemployment, poverty, and reentry for ex-felons.
For her part, Edwards told BuzzFeed News the interaction with young Baltimore activists helped her become a better candidate. (She's also hoping the traction she's gained will propel her to a surprise victory in Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary against Rep. Chris Van Hollen.)
“I learned so much from that and it really has helped informed the way that I think and talk about Baltimore and the role of a U.S. senator in trying to help some of those solutions. It was incredibly helpful to me,” said Edwards, recalling the meeting in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “Some of the leaders that I've met identify with me and I identify with them. That's how I started.”
In 1994, as executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Edwards pushed for the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
Activists describe her as someone doesn't come off as if she's trying too hard to curry favor or impress by talking about complex policy — the conversation usually involves more talk about partnerships.
The other big thing they like? She’s not supported by the Democratic establishment in Maryland. Edwards likes to tout the times she's broken with the Democratic Party over redistricting, which the activists argue dilutes political power in Maryland.
"She was one of the only politicians speaking directly speaking to that," said Dayvon Love, LBS' director of public policy, recalling a 2015 meeting with the congresswoman. “No Democrat was speaking on those issues."
“My goal from the beginning of this campaign was to quietly go community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, leader by leader and getting to know people. That's not the kind of thing that makes headlines but it's the way I do my work," Edwards said. "I'm so grateful that so many in the community who are active and care a it neighborhoods and about the city have opened themselves up to me and embraced me."
Jackson said the activists believe that ads attacking her as an ineffective lawmaker are anti-black. He said he saw her support picking up in Baltimore City six months ago, but criticized black establishment figures who have stood idly by while she's attacked.
"To me what Chris Van Hollen and others have been doing is racial gas-lighting by characterizing her as incompetent, and by saying that Obama likes him... that's anti-black rhetoric, and another marker why we need people like Donna Edwards," Jackson said. "It's simply using black people’s bodies to an advance an agenda.
Added Jackson, "When you have the system not supporting you and you have someone speaking to marginalized communities, that to me is someone who needs to be in the U.S. Senate."
Love recalled a meeting with Edwards a year ago at Terra Cafe in Baltimore in which he asked her about her relationship to establishment politics were she to win the Senate primary race. "I don’t expect to get the support, and if I were to be elected I won’t owe them anything," he recalled her saying.
"It was just her integrity and clarity of vision," he added. "You could tell that she understood at that time that her support was going to come from the bottom up."
"A lot of time people who are connected to Democratic establishment, there's no access to certain rooms that otherwise might not be open," he said. "I expect that a lot of organizations like our and others to have access to resources that will directly accountable to our community."
If the plan works, Edwards will be strongly favored in the November general election, and is already looking toward victory.
“If we have those relationships now, when I become senator, we're going to use those relationships and work together to focus on the needs of those communities," she said.
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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