BALTIMORE (AP) — As Baltimore continues to heal from the turmoil of last year’s rioting, the city has become a key battleground in Maryland’s Democratic Senate primary where a black woman and a white man are competing for the nomination.
Top Democrats in Washington and even the White House have taken the unusual step of weighing in on the election contest, in which crime and gun control have been a hot issue.
U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards is attempting to become the nation’s second black female senator and successor to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the nation’s longest-serving female senator who is retiring after her fifth term. Edwards and Rep. Chris Van Hollen are expected to win their respective districts that include the suburbs of the nation’s capital.
The other big chunk of Maryland’s Democratic voters lives in and around Baltimore, where neither candidate is very well known. The overwhelmingly Democratic city has a black population of about 63 percent.
The city and its suburbs are an essential election prize in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1. Both candidates have campaigned extensively there.
Statewide, Maryland’s black population is about 30 percent, the highest of any state outside the Deep South.
Donna Tyler, a 60-year-old Baltimore voter, voted early for Edwards, saying gender and race played a role.
“I think both were factors,” said Tyler, who is black. “You know, African-American representation in Congress is probably not where it should be or — really for any minority, but also for women — so I’m always happy to see a woman running who seems to be intelligent … I just think the balance is not where it should be.”
Frank McNeil, 54, cited Van Hollen’s experience as a main reason for supporting him. McNeil said endorsements from Baltimore leaders — male and female, black and white — made a big impression on him.
“He transcended race lines and lines of sex, too,” McNeil, who is black, said of Van Hollen.
Van Hollen, 57, won his congressional seat in 2002, defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Connie Morella. Before that, he served 12 years as a state legislator.
Edwards, 57, was a lawyer and liberal activist before defeating incumbent Rep. Al Wynn in the 2008 primary on the way to becoming the first black woman to win election to Congress in Maryland.
Edwards has criticized Van Hollen as a Washington insider, too willing to compromise liberal principles for a political deal. She casts herself as a true progressive.
Van Hollen has cited a progressive record, along with a willingness to work across party lines. He called Edwards ineffectual, widely criticized for poor constituent services.
Edwards, who won endorsements from former NAACP presidents Ben Jealous and Kweisi Mfume, said she believes she offers a unique perspective. A single mom since her son was about 3, Edwards said she remembers talking to her now-27-year-old son about his potential interactions with police as a young black man.
“I think it’s important to have that voice and my perspective in the Senate as we begin to think about how these issues affect some communities,” Edwards said.
Van Hollen said it will be critical for the next senator to work with people to meet the challenges facing Baltimore.
“It’s not enough to talk about them,” Van Hollen said.
The campaign erupted last week when a PAC called Working for Us released a television ad with images of President Barack Obama tearing up while discussing Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The ad criticizes Van Hollen for meeting with National Rifle Association lobbyists to put a loophole in a campaign finance disclosure bill for the organization.
Gun violence as an issue resonates loudly in Baltimore, which saw its highest per-capita homicide rate on record in 2015.
The White House asked the super PAC supporting Edwards to pull the ad, which was described as “misleading.” The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, also denounced the ad.
Van Hollen contends Edwards is running a dishonest campaign. As a Maryland state senator, he led a push to pass the first law in the country to require built-in trigger locks on guns. He also has a pending bill to encourage states to require a permit to purchase a gun.
“The difference between myself and Congresswoman Edwards when it comes to gun violence is: I’ve actually beaten the NRA and have a bill in that does something about it instead of play politics with it,” Van Hollen said.
With respect to the ads, Edwards said she is pointing out that people have a choice.
“I think that that is all fair game for a campaign, and I think it’s appropriate to point out the contrast so that people understand the choices that they’re able to make,” Edwards said.