This story was originally published on September 30, 2015.
Donna Edwards is obsessed with hats. If she’s elected to the Senate, the Maryland congresswoman will be distinct on many fronts — she would be the only black woman in the 100-person body (and only the second in history), as well as the chamber’s only single mother. She might also literally stand out on account of her headwear.
“I love to go on Etsy vintage. I’ll plug in a color, or I’ll just plug in hats. God, I love vintage hats.” It's this past August, and we’re sitting in the newly rented offices of her Senate campaign. After about an hour of talking policy, Edwards 57, tells me about one upside of campaigning all around the state: shopping opportunities.
“We’ve been touring around Maryland, and believe me, I will stop if there is a consignment store. I have seen it before we get to it — like peripheral vision,” she says. “I just got the cutest hat. It's like two bubbles. Bubble, bubble,” she says, gesturing to show one bubble on her head, and another on top.
When Edwards tells stories like these, there’s always a point where the conversation loops back to politics. Thrifting — like the congresswoman’s other surprise skill (she’s apparently a very competent plumber) — originates from a very distinct point in her life. Before she was elected to Congress, before she decided to run for Senate, and before she led a successful nonprofit — she was a struggling single mom.
“When I owned my house I had every tool imaginable, I had three ladders. I learned to do plumbing,” she says, “When you're a single mom and you don’t have any money, you go to Home Depot to look at the videos on plumbing, and then you become a plumber.”
In a world where politicians of all stripes brag openly about their humble beginnings, (or their parents' or their grandparents'), Edwards’ stories from when she has struggled feel uncommonly authentic — perhaps because they are not just aimed at making her seem “relatable,” but tied to specific ideas she has on policy. She speaks about equal pay, childcare tax credits, and easing student loans through her own set of life experiences.
And it might be working. Edwards threw her (perhaps vintage) hat in the ring after Barbara Mikulski, Maryland’s longtime senator, announced this spring that she was stepping down at the end of this term. Edwards faces a tough race — first against her primary challenger, Chris Van Hollen, another Democratic congressman from Maryland, who many consider the establishment favorite. As of early summer, Van Hollen had raised three times as much as Edwards in funds — yet an internal poll from late August shows Edwards a couple of points out in front.
We met up with the congresswoman in August to talk about politics, activism, and her love of fishing. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
So, you’re running for Senate. How did you decide to jump in the race?
“When Senator Mikulski actually announced her impending retirement, it took all of us by surprise. So, it wasn’t like it was a plan. But I thought long and hard about the kind of voices that are missing from the United States Senate. And I thought my voice would be a good one to be there.”
What is that perspective?
"I grew up in a middle-class family — or what that aspired to the middle-class. My dad was in the Air Force for almost 30 years, and so I grew up living in every region in the country on every installation that you can imagine. That frames a lot of the way I think about the world, in terms of what people need and what they want."
“And in my personal life, I struggled with things that young people are struggling with now —paying off a boatload of student loans with parents who were not independently wealthy, raising my son, and struggling with things like childcare.”
Can you imagine if you're a Latina and you are making basically half of what your male counterpart is making? In what world would that be fair?
What about your perspective as a woman?
“I’m able to articulate from the perspective of a woman, and a black woman, of what it means not to have equal pay for equal work. For us, it's more like six dollars and 40 cents for every 10 bucks a man makes. For Latinas, it's 54 cents on the dollar. Can you imagine if you're a Latina and you are making basically half of what your male counterpart is making? In what world would that be fair?"
“When I worked in the aerospace industry, people I worked right next to were making more than I was. And I knew for sure, but we weren't allowed to talk about our wages. And then, when I worked in philanthropy, right before
"So, I feel very, very strongly about this. And I'm going to tell you something, with my voice at the table, having this discussion is really different."
You’ve also talked a lot about your student loans. Do you mind telling how much you ended up with?
“I talk about it all the time because my loans between undergraduate school and then onto law school — my total loan debt was about $100,000.”
Now, you’re obviously hugely successful. Do the loans seem worth it?
“Well, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's talk about like how I got from there to here."
"There was a time when I really struggled. I was a single mom, and I ended up without health insurance, so I had healthcare bills on top of the student loans. I had to juggle, which one am I going to pay when, depending on who was calling and who was writing letters, and who was leaving notes on my door."
"I fell in and out of default on my student loans, and in and out of almost losing my home because of that. And I had to make different decisions because I had to pay back loans. Let’s look at students now. If you're paying back the loans, what if you are a budding entrepreneur? It keeps you from investing in a business. If you have a family? It keeps you from investing in a home and other kinds of things to strengthen your family. So it’s true, eventually I paid those student loans off, but at what cost?”
I mailed my last student loan check the day I won my first primary election.
When did you finally pay them off?
“I mailed my last student loan check the day I won my first primary election. So I went to the mailbox, I voted, and that evening I won my primary election.”
I want to ask about the Violence Against Women Act. You lead the effort to pass the initial bill in 1994 from a nonprofit, and then ended up in Congress to see it barely get reauthorized in 2012. How did that feel?
“It was difficult because I remember the struggle leading up to the passage in 1994, how hard we worked to gain Republican support. And then this time around, it was pretty disturbing [that it came so close to defeat]. At the end of the day, I think the advocacy community and battered women victims won out. The reason they did is because there's a robust movement all across the country that shamed the Congress into doing the right thing."
“There's a story about Franklin Roosevelt and it's probably a myth, but I like the story. It’s that the reason he moved forward on the New Deal-era reforms around social security, and other things, was he told the people behind the movement, 'Make me do it.' It’s probably not a true story, but I do think that’s the job of the advocacy community.”
We’ve seen a lot from Black Lives Matter — and Baltimore was the home of Freddie Gray, whose death ignited a lot of anger. What do you think they should make you do?
"For Black Lives Matter, the tipping point has been everything that’s transpired over this last year and a half. Whether it's Ferguson or Trayvon Martin down in Florida, or Freddie Gray right here in Baltimore. These incidents just gave Black Lives Matter the space that it needed. There have been some complaints against the Black Lives Matter movement, that they don’t have an agenda. I feel like it's our job to come up with the legislative agenda. Lyndon Johnson said the exact same thing to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s our job as legislators to come up with that."
What do you think that agenda is then?
"Well, I'll tell you one thing. One of the things that I've been thinking of is something that I spearheaded, which was reinstating Pell Grant eligibility for people who were incarcerated. Because that is a way to break the cycle of violence that lends people into incarceration in the first place, because it's about education."
Nobody is ever going to put it in a headline anywhere, but I'm going to know that kids are not hungry because of what I did.
What’s your proudest moment in your career?
"When I first came into Congress, because I had never held elective office before, I wondered what it is that I could do that was about making a difference. Not making a headline, but making a difference."
"Maryland is a state where 40% of our kids receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch. I had been visiting a lot of schools all through my congressional district, and I would wonder, well, what happens with these kids if they're hungry for breakfast and lunch? Aren't they hungry for dinner, too?"
"I wondered about that because I’m a mom. So, I found out about this program called the Afterschool Suppers Program. Any member of Congress in Maryland, because of Maryland's numbers, could have added Maryland to the Afterschool Suppers Program. But it wasn’t added until I added it that first summer. Tens of thousands of students — millions of meals served to kids. Nobody is ever going to put it in a headline anywhere, but I'm going to know that kids are not hungry because of what I did."
Lightning round. Favorite day of the year?
“My most fun moment of the year is that I have all of my family members over on Christmas morning for brunch, and I make everything. And I decorate everything and I cook. I love cooking. It’s tough because my son is not home anymore, and he used to eat for like six people. So I got used to cooking for six."
You’re sitting eating dinner by yourself on a night off. What do you do?
"You really want to know what I'm doing? [laughs] I go onto Etsy and vintage sites. I’ll plug in a color or suits or hats. Oh, my God. I love vintage hats. And you can't go wrong buying vintage hats because if you end up getting them and they're not in great condition, you haven't paid a boatload of money for them."
Most likely to buy?
"Dresses, especially 1950s-era dresses. If I ever wanted to live in an era because of the dresses, it’d be 1950."
"Oh, geez, should I say this?"
[Laughs] Of course!
"I like HGTV."
That’s your bombshell? I don’t think it’s that scandalous. What shows?
"Oh, my gosh. Love It or List It. Fixer Upper. Property Brother. I love the Property Brothers. I'm dying to go on Flea Market Flip."
"When I owned my own house, I would do the plumbing. I redid the entire kitchen. I learned how to do those things out of necessity, but then I love doing it because there's nothing like starting a project, and then really finishing it."