In Homestretch of Maryland U.S. Senate Primary, Identity Is Center Stage

Lateshia Beachum/The Washington Post
Angela Alsobrooks and Higher Heights for America president Glynda C. Carr on May 5, at Alsobrooks’s Silver Spring campaign office.

In the closing hours of her primary campaign for U.S. Senate, Prince George’s Executive Angela Alsobrooks rallied with fellow Black women to boost her potentially historic campaign and push her closer to the top of America’s political power structure.

Nearly 1 in 3 of Maryland’s over 6 million residents is Black, living in the most diverse state on the East Coast – a typically blue electorate that has elevated Black people to key positions of power, but never to Congress’ upper chamber.

Alsobrooks’s bid to become the state’s first – and the nation’s fourth – Black woman to serve in the Senate has thrust her identity to the forefront of a high-stakes contest that pits the local official against a three-term Congressman with deep pockets.

“She’s going to bring her lived experience as a woman, her lived experience as a Black woman and her lived experience as a mother to Washington. And that’s what excites us,” said Glynda C. Carr, president, CEO and co-founder of the Higher Heights for America PAC said at a Silver Spring rally. Invoking a Black icon as supporters cheered, Carr called Alsobrooks on Saturday “a beacon of light, and – in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm – unbought and unbossed for the women across this country.”

Whoever prevails in the increasingly contentious May 14 primary will shoulder the weight of protecting Maryland’s reliably Democratic seat. The GOP could unleash an onslaught to bolster their recruit for the race: popular former governor Larry Hogan (R), whose candidacy makes Maryland among a handful of contests poised to tip the balance of power in the Senate.

The primary match up pits Rep. David Trone, a straight-shooting, White businessman with liberal bona fides against a Black woman county executive trying to leap from local government to the U.S. Senate, magnifying broader tension in Democratic politics over the urgency of boosting long-lacking representation that party leaders seek. While Trone’s experience and ability to self-fund his campaign could offer a strategic advantage to the party, Alsobrooks’s offers a barrier-breaking candidacy.

Alsobrooks has deftly navigated her history-making bid while rarely explicitly discussing race on the campaign trail and instead focused most conversations about representation on gender. She discusses motherhood and the opportunity to become the first congresswoman representing Maryland since Sen. Barbara Ann Mikulski (D) who retired in 2016. She talks about how Marylanders should see themselves in a congressional delegation that’s largely White and entirely male. Her event schedule includes appearances at Black churches and events with Black fraternities and sororities, a quiet and effortless nod to the culture that’s shaped her and her achievements.

The instinct for a Black female candidate to emphasize issues while campaigning and avoid centering their whole identity has been beneficial for those seeking high office, said Ayana Best, an assistant political science professor at Howard University, who called the approach “deracialization.”

“Deracialization has been a strategy [Black female candidates] have used and have been successful in using,” Best said. “I have noticed a deracialized campaign and platform [of Alsobrooks], which I think is going to give her an edge.”

Trone has secured support from prominent Black leaders, including Rep. Hakim Jeffries (D-N.Y.). He has a years-long record of outreach and work in marginalized communities that predates his political career. He has messaged Black and Latino voters heavily with direct promises on social justice – including a commitment to combating the carceral system with a holistic approach. And like Alsobrooks, he’s invested time on the campaign trail in Black churches.

Supporters note Trone’s investment in issues that resonate with communities he’s trying to reach far predate his campaign, including his backing of the United Negro College Fund and funding for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trone Center for Criminal Justice Reform that works on social justice issues and opened in 2015. The business he co-founded, Total Wine & More, has had a ban the box provision on hiring for decades.

In the waning months of Trone’s campaign, some of his public comments – including the use of the word “jigaboo,” a racial slur he said he did not know and said he used by accident in a March congressional hearing when he meant to say bugaboo – have heightened a contrast with Alsobrooks in a race that offers Democratic voters little daylight on policy issues.

“David has spent time with Black, Latino, and AAPI faith leaders, small business owners, and students to listen and learn about their hopes, their challenges, and their dreams,” the Trone campaign said in a statement responding to questions about his statements and relationships with voters of color.

“For over a year, David has focused on the issues at the heart of this campaign, criticizing big-moneyed interests in politics, fighting for communities that have been silenced, and earning their support because they trust him to deliver.”

Craig Hudson for The Washington Post
Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) speaks with campaign volunteers in Laurel, Md., on May 3.

In interviews, some voters said a candidate’s ability to beat Republicans in November is a selling point in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2 to 1. They don’t always agree on which candidate offers that.

Trone’s financial edge matters to Bowie resident Gina Winchester, 59, who is Black and cast her ballot for him on the first day of early voting, citing his record investment in his campaign as proof he would fight into November.

“If you want something, you do what you gotta do to get it done,” Winchester said.

Rhona Campbell of Silver Spring, who is White, said identity factored into her vote for Alsobrooks. “We need more women and people of color in higher levels of government, ” Campbell said after casting her ballot.

Alsobrooks has secured the backing of many of the state’s top Democrats, including Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Gov. Wes Moore, the state’s first Black governor, who said as he endorsed her: “I’m not supporting Angela because she’ll be the first, I’m supporting Angela because her fight will be ours.”

On the campaign trail she ticks through policy ideas on crime, mental health, education, addiction, the economy and more, positioning herself as someone who can get things done. She was a champion for bringing the FBI headquarters to Greenbelt, secured $67 million from the state for a new cancer center and pushed for a public-private funding model to build new schools in the county, among other things.

Trone has garnered support from influential labor unions and many congressional colleagues, state leaders and Prince George’s County officials. Some of his most vocal support comes from Black and Latino officials from the county Alsobrooks leads.

Many gathered in recent days to express their support of him at a news conference, after he referred to Reps. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) in a debate as “great diversity candidates” he’s supported. (His campaign told Politico he meant to say “diverse candidates.”) They stood by him after an ad in which a supporter said Alsobrooks needed training wheels (it was later edited out). And they backed him after the backlash Trone faced following an NBC 4 interview in which he characterized Prince George’s officials who endorsed Alsobrooks as “low level.”

Del. Deni Taveras (D), who identifies as Black and Latina, said Trone called her up early in the morning after he accidentally used a slur, apologized for using the word and offered his understanding if she and other people would not want to support him further.

“He was ready to take the consequences,” Taveras said. “That showed a level of integrity I haven’t seen in his opponent. I’ve never heard her apologize.”

Taveras says some of Trone’s statements have been misconstrued by his opponents. The “low level,” comment, she said, was about the collective power behind the Prince George’s leaders who back him, not race. Taveras said she is “sad” that she is not supporting another woman of color, but added that a larger vision of shared values and leaders who practice inclusion are more important than voting for someone who shares Black ancestry.

“If it were Stacey Abrams or Barbara Lee – somebody who I know is going to be a fighter, is willing to stand alone, is willing to take on those hard hitting questions, this would be a different conversation,” Taveras said of Alsobrooks’ candidacy. She questioned a lack of Latino representation among Alsobrooks’ core leadership team.

Alsobrooks brushed off the criticisms in an interview, focusing attention on what she hoped to do if elected: co-sponsoring the Women’s Health Protection Act her first day in office, pushing for gun legislation that will protect children and advocating for the protection and preservation of Social Security and Medicare.

It’s an approach that worked on Yolanda Patterson, 73, of Westphalia, who at first told Alsobrooks to her face outside of an early voting center that she did not intend to support her. The county executive, Patterson said, should be more present in her community.

But with the racial slur and “low level” comments already weighing on her, Patterson, who is Black, said in an interview that she ultimately voted for Alsobrooks. “There’s nothing about me low-level. That did it right there for me,” she said. “I was like okay, and then I prayed about it.”