Why Donna Edwards Can't Count on the Congressional Black Caucus

In her fast rise, Edwards has made enemies within the CBC and the Maryland delegation. That may hurt her Senate chances.

Rep. Donna Edwards jumped into Maryland's open Senate race last month to cheers from national progressive groups. But on Capitol Hill, insiders say she's made more enemies than friends among two key groups that count her as a member: the Congressional Black Caucus and the Maryland House delegation.

Some current and former CBC members and aides, none of whom were willing to speak on the record, described Edwards as ambitious and aloof, saying she's rubbed many in the caucus the wrong way. Others noted her public stances in opposition to other Maryland Democrats—an outlier in an otherwise collegial delegation. Whether it's from poor relationship-building or a refusal to "wait her turn" within groups that prize seniority, Edwards has ruffled feathers as she's risen quickly through the House ranks.

"I don't think the CBC's been a real priority for Donna. I don't think she has particularly great relationships inside of the caucus," said a former staffer for a CBC member. "I don't think she's going to win any popularity contests inside the CBC."

In one particularly explosive episode, Edwards walked out of a CBC meeting last year after a dispute with Rep. Cedric Richmond. "He told her to get out, and she didn't come back for six months," said another former aide with CBC ties. "She didn't come back until a month before she announced her candidacy for Senate. It struck a very disingenuous tone."

Edwards has her share of allies on Capitol Hill, and she has been tapped repeatedly by leadership for key roles. She led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program for two cycles, and some pushed for her to chair the DCCC for the 2016 election. She was a coleader of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues last Congress, and she serves as a cochair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

In the Senate race, she boasts support from a spate of national progressive groups, as well as EMILY's List, which fundraises for women Democratic candidates who favor abortion rights.

But while she's ascended steadily in power and national prominence, she's rankled many CBC members and Maryland Democrats, the coalitions that might have served as her most natural alliances—and would help her overcome a tough primary field that currently includes Rep. Chris Van Hollen. More importantly, Rep. Elijah Cummings, a popular veteran CBC member, could jump into the race too, making Edwards' search for support even tougher.

Some CBC members were open in their desire to see Cummings enter the race. "I can only speak to the positive nature of the desire to get Elijah Cummings to run," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. "There is a lot of interest in his candidacy from CBC members. ... I would be stunned if the majority of the members aren't supporting him."

That preference could say as much about Edwards' standing within the CBC as it does about Cummings'.

"Donna Edwards has always been an outsider to the caucus," said the former staffer with CBC ties. "The CBC overwhelmingly doesn't think that Donna Edwards has managed her relationships well or even developed one. "¦ I have heard members say that they will go and campaign for Van Hollen before they will support Donna Edwards."

Edwards responded to such criticism in a statement, dismissing her anonymous detractors. "Whenever I've taken on a fight for the people of our state, I've done so proudly and put my name on it," she said. "Marylanders do not need more backroom politics, they deserve a senator who will have their backs regardless of the circumstances. Maryland's working families will always know where I stand—with them."

In her home state's powerful congressional delegation, some say her public breaks with other Maryland Democrats—and an unwillingness to forge relationships—have also hurt her standing. Asked about Edwards' Senate candidacy, one Maryland Democratic member responded: "There are a lot of us looking at this race. Most of us are friends—except maybe the possibility of one that I'm not going to get into."

Edwards came to Congress in 2008 as an outsider, knocking off Rep. Albert Wynn—a popular figure within the CBC—in a contentious primary. And while she's rapidly climbed upward through the House ranks, to some on the Hill that outsider status has mostly stuck.

A former Hill staffer with both Maryland and CBC ties acknowledged the difficulty of Edwards' position—entering a group after defeating one of its members—but said members would have been open to building relationships with her. "She didn't want to assimilate," the staffer said. "She wanted to be her, and that worked in some instances and it didn't work in other instances. "¦ You can say 'I'm gonna sweet-talk 'em to death' or 'I'm gonna fight 'em to death,' and she's decided to fight 'em to death."

Edwards does have some friends inside the caucus, despite the frustrations of others. "I really like Donna Edwards, and I certainly am proud to be a member of the Congressional Black Caucus," said Rep. Gwen Moore. "She really is very energetic and has been very active in her leadership role as cochair of the Steering and Policy Committee, on which I serve."

Another member, speaking on condition of anonymity, echoed that. "There's been chatter in the air, but this is Congress, so if you're here long enough there's going to be chatter in the air about everybody," said the member. "We have a good relationship, and she's been helpful to me if I have questions or something about the process. ... She's been very nice to me."

But multiple sources said some CBC members were irked by Edwards' role in the 2012 Ethics Committee proceedings against Rep. Maxine Waters. Edwards, then a member of the panel, aggressively questioned Mikael Moore—Waters' grandson and then-chief of staff — over his role in alleged violations. The committee eventually dropped the investigation without punishing Waters, though it did issue a letter criticizing Moore, and some in the caucus felt Edwards was grandstanding.

Others mentioned Edwards' unwillingness to fall in line with Democrats' seniority system, which the CBC has traditionally supported. Veteran members argue the seniority system has allowed minority members to rise to the top and inhabit powerful positions they otherwise would have been denied.

Most CBC members interviewed for this story were reluctant to divulge internal caucus tensions on the record, but made no attempts to dispel the notion that Edwards has made enemies in the caucus. One member, speaking anonymously to discuss caucus politics, said: "Clearly Cummings is more popular in the CBC than what Edwards is." Added another: "If he decided to put his name in the hat, he would be a favorite of the majority of the CBC members."

Cummings said he still hasn't made up his mind, but he added that a number of CBC members have urged him to run. Several staffers said he is expected to begin polling the state soon, perhaps this week. "He's leaning toward doing this," said a former Hill staffer with ties to Cummings. "His profile now and his ranking membership in [the Oversight and Government Reform Committee] and what that platform has allowed him to do, the fact that he is a former CBC chair "¦ I think he sort of feels like, what do I have to lose if I do this?"

Moore suggested some of the backlash against Edwards might be due to members' strong feelings toward Cummings, one of the most-revered CBC members. "Having two African-Americans in the race would not bode well for either one of them," she said. "If people prefer Cummings, then they probably would be upset that she announced first ... because that might foreclose his chances for doing it."

Edwards publicly parted with other Maryland Democrats in 2011 over a redistricting plan that netted the party another seat but cost her district some of its Montgomery County territory. Some raised eyebrows when she was spotted looking over state maps with then-Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican, on the House floor. Months later, she endorsed John Delaney in the Democratic primary for Bartlett's seat—after three senior members of the delegation had lined up behind state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola. Delaney won the race. She split with the delegation again later that cycle to oppose a ballot measure to expand gambling in Maryland.

So far, Edwards and Van Hollen are the only entrants into Democratic primary, but several other Maryland Democrats, like Cummings, are still considering the race. Maryland sources said that despite competing ambitions, there's mostly goodwill within the delegation—except when it comes to Edwards. "The Democratic delegation in Maryland is all pretty close for the most part," said a staffer who has worked for another Maryland member. "She has never really built those relationships."