Josh Kurtz: Oh Donna (and Valerie)

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Donna Edwards and Valerie Ervin, two of the most prominent and interesting figures in Maryland politics today, have been friends since they grew up together on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.

There were other African-American families on the base, but not many. And in the city, per capita, there were far fewer. It wasn’t like coming of age in the Deep South in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but in a part of the world where marketers are forever promoting the convergence of three cultures -- Hispanic, Anglo and Native American -- they must have felt very, very isolated.

Now Edwards, the congresswoman from Prince George’s County whose district includes the eastern part of Montgomery County, is making headlines, arguing that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Congressional redistricting plan is discriminatory and needlessly divides minority communities. Ervin, who is going through a controversy-filled year as president of the Montgomery County Council, has been her most vocal ally.

Regardless of how you feel about their criticisms, you have to admire Edwards and Ervin for their fierce independence. They are unafraid to buck the establishment and step on toes. That’s rare among Maryland Democrats.

But are they practicing smart politics? Do they risk offending too many power brokers -- and voters?

Reasonable people can disagree about the duo’s critique of O’Malley’s map. Three of the most prominent African-American leaders in the state -- Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker -- testified in favor of it, and all but a handful of minority state legislators voted for it last week. That made Edwards’ and Ervin’s public statements all the more noteworthy.

It’s true that the new congressional map cleaves some minority communities and disperses them into districts with voters who are very, very different. It’s also true that mapmakers may have missed an opportunity to create a third majority-minority Congressional district in the state.

But if you buy the partisan Democratic argument that having more Democrats in Congress is good for minority communities, O’Malley’s map at least helps achieve that goal (Edwards, to be fair, released an alternative proposal that kept more minority precincts intact and put a GOP district in jeopardy). Remember, Republicans are cheerleading for more majority-minority districts not out of some newfound commitment to civil rights, but because if you aggressively pack minority voters together, you get fewer Democratic districts across the country.

Edwards, who in particular has prospered by battling the big boys, burst on the scene by almost upsetting Congressman Albert Wynn in 2006 -- and then finishing the job two years later. Her introduction into local politics was as chief skeptic of the National Harbor project, at a time when most pols were falling over themselves to support it. During the back-and-forth over redistricting, Edwards butted heads with Steny Hoyer as Democratic leaders decided which of the state’s two Republican congressmen to target next year -- and she prevailed.

She spent years in the vanguard of national progressive politics, running a liberal foundation, where there was good and evil and there were very few gray areas. But when it comes to her own situation, the moral high ground is a little more elusive.

Even if you accept that Edwards is taking a principled stand by blasting O’Malley’s redistricting plan, many people detect more than an element of self-interest. In her two races against Wynn, Edwards ran stronger in the Montgomery County portion of her district than in Prince George’s, and by losing Montgomery and taking on a conservative part of Anne Arundel, as O’Malley’s map mandates, Edwards could face any number of potential perils.

First, there’s the prospect of a Democratic primary challenge from Prince George’s County (Glenn Ivey? Tony Muse?). Edwards could get a primary challenge from Anne Arundel County (something Councilman Jamie Benoit is contemplating). And she could even find herself with a credible general election challenger from Anne Arundel. State and local officials can run for Congress in 2012 without sacrificing their seats, so they have a free shot at an incumbent who doesn’t seem invincible.

If there’s one universal complaint about Edwards among Maryland’s political classes, it’s that her constituent service needs improvement. There’s no way to measure that, but you hear it often enough that there must be something there.

A Twitter account is just a Twitter account, but consider: On Twitter, Edwards is following 108 people or entities. Only half a dozen or so are from her district. The rest are national or D.C. media figures, or liberal organizations, or congressional colleagues. She isn’t following any community groups in her district or any local businesses save for the Washington Redskins and National Harbor.

Edwards appeared to acknowledge reality the other day when she said she wouldn’t directly fight the congressional map anymore and looked forward to continuing to serve the people of the 4th District. But now, at a time when she needs to introduce herself to a new set of voters -- conservative voters who may be predisposed to dislike her -- she has already gone on record saying she doesn’t want to represent them. That’s not an auspicious beginning to the relationship.

If Edwards wants some advice on how to represent hostile territory, Hoyer is a good model. Following the 1990 Census, Hoyer saw his Prince George’s district cut in half and was forced to take on conservative Southern Maryland. He won less than 60 percent of the vote in his first three elections with the new lines -- but his constituent service was impeccable, and he provided huge infusions of federal cash to the region, especially the Patuxent River Naval Station.

Today, Hoyer is racking up huge wins again. The Prince George’s portion of the district still provides his margin of victory. But he has morphed into a Southern Maryland good ol’ boy.

Donna Edwards may hate the idea of following Hoyer’s lead. But she’ll need to work hard to love -- and be loved in -- Severna Park.

Meanwhile, Ervin is fighting battles of her own.

A former union organizer, her political rise was a little more conventional than Edwards’. She began as a parent activist, then became a school board member, working simultaneously for County Councilman George Leventhal. She won her Council seat in 2006 with a broad coalition of support.

Such is Ervin’s political ability and potential for widespread appeal that two years ago, before Leggett even won his second term, an impressive array of Montgomery insiders was telling me that Ervin was the frontrunner to succeed him as county executive in 2014. But these days, as she wraps up a stint as Council president marked by fiscal austerity and bitter fights with public employee unions, that sense of inevitability is no longer there.

It’s a tough time to be a progressive in local government, when there are limited resources to dole out, and Ervin may simply be paying the price politically. But she’s made a few missteps, like introducing – and then withdrawing – the so-called “peace bill.” And she finds herself caught between business and labor with a bill she’s proposed requiring big box stores like Wal-Mart to sign community benefits agreements before being allowed to build in Montgomery County. Neither side is happy.

The enmity that the unions are expressing towards a former sister in arms must be alarming to Ervin. Labor still matters in Montgomery elections. But she doesn’t appear to have extended many olive branches, either.

The harder the unions hit Ervin, the more stridently The Washington Post, the other major powerbroker in county elections, rushes to her defense. Looking ahead to a possible county executive’s race, she may be calculating that that’s a reasonable trade-off.

Edwards and Ervin would probably dispute the notion that they’re in any kind of political hot water at the moment, and they no doubt enjoy the fact that they are roiling the establishment. But at the same time, they both seem rather isolated -- much as they were all those years ago in Albuquerque.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Bartlett Pared

Van Hollen’s Lament

P.G. Law

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps

Baltimore Ravin’s

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.