As politicians throughout the state contemplate the wisdom of mounting a bare-knuckle Senate campaign, only Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards have officially declared their candidacies for the seat being vacated by outgoing Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. But while both are longtime Democrats, they could not be more different in how they are perceived by voters, both in terms of their relationship to Maryland’s Jewish community and in their support for Israel.
With more than a year until the primary elections, Van Hollen — who has represented the state’s 8th Congressional District from his base in Montgomery County since 2002 — is widely regarded as the party establishment’s favored son, having scooped up an endorsement by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) just days after Mikulski’s March 2 announcement that she was retiring. He’s also been endorsed by the Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and all nine members of the Montgomery County Council.
Edwards, by contrast, is seen as the populist underdog, the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in the House of Representatives and bearer of a coveted endorsement from the progressive women’s organization, Emily’s List.
On Israel, observers say the candidates hold vastly different records.
“Looking at their pro-Israel record closely over the years, there’s a huge contrast between Van Hollen’s excellent record and Edwards’ very poor record,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “There were times when you had 350 co-sponsors and she wasn’t one, or good letters where 317 members signed and she did not.”
Edwards, who represents the 4th Congressional District in Prince George’s County, has received campaign contributions in her previous congressional races from J Street PAC, the political funding arm of the left-leaning pro-Israel organization.
The PAC’s bio of Edwards, available on its website, quotes her 2008 campaign platform, in which she wrote that she believes that “the U.S. should not cease in its efforts to achieve a two-state solution in which Israel’s neighbors recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, living in security alongside an independent and autonomous Palestinian state” and that “resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be pursued in parallel to diplomatic engagement that must take place with Iran, Syria and Arab allies.”
Although a majority of American Jews support a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, Edwards’ belief that Iran, Syria and America’s Arab allies — almost all of whom are sworn enemies of Israel — should be engaged in the negotiations may be outside of the mainstream Jewish community’s pro-Israel outlook.
During her time in Congress, Edwards often voted in the minority against legislation considered “pro-Israel” by most lawmakers. A few examples include voting against a 2009 bill that passed by a vote of 344-26 condemning the United Nation’s Goldstone Report, an investigation that accused the State of Israel of human rights violations but was later recanted as a fabrication. She also refused to sign congressional letters supporting Israel, such as a 2010 letter drafted by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) declaring Congress’ view that Israel has the right to defend itself and a 2014 letter drafted by Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) taking a firm stance against Iran’s nuclear program.
Van Hollen caught flak in 2006 when he authored a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice critical of Israel’s actions in Lebanon.
Edwards, though, has voted with the majority on legislation providing financial aid to Israel, including last year’s emergency appropriations bill providing $225 million to resupply Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Attempts to reach Edwards for comment for this article were unsuccessful.
Many in Maryland’s Jewish community describe Van Hollen’s as nearly perfect, but it wasn’t always that way.
Van Hollen caught flak in 2006 when he authored a letter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that was critical of Israel’s actions in its battle against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
“The killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah precipitated the current crisis in the region. Those actions were followed by Hezbollah rocket attacks that have fallen indiscriminately in Haifa and other Israeli population centers. Like any sovereign country, Israel has the right and responsibility to defend itself,” wrote Van Hollen. “The Israeli response, however, has now gone beyond the destruction of Hezbollah’s military assets. It has caused huge damage to Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, resulted in the large loss of civilian life and produced over 750,000 refugees. Hezbollah is undeniably the culprit, but it is the Lebanese people — not Hezbollah — who are increasingly the victims of the violence.”
Though Van Hollen angered some in the Jewish community with his letter, he quickly clarified his position in a follow-up letter, writing that he never “called Israel’s actions unjustified” and that the letter to Rice was “meant as a critique of Bush administration policy in the Middle East,” according to JTA.
Today, few of his Jewish supporters even remember the incident.
In a recent phone interview, Van Hollen reflected on the letter.
“This was a situation where there were some differences with some in the community, but it was not a situation where we had separate goals,” said Van Hollen. “The goals were the same, which was to ensure the safety of Israel. [But] there were some different perspectives on the best approach to achieving that.”
Van Hollen spoke about what he believes to be his “close, working and personal” relationship with the local community.
“We have shared values, shared priorities,” he said.
So far, only Hoyer, the House minority whip, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have ruled out a Senate campaign, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is mulling over a possible run. But while the establishment coalesces around Van Hollen, the shadow of Mikulski’s historic firsts, including being the first woman popularly elected to the Senate, have some feeling that Mikulski’s replacement should be a woman.
Emily’s List, whose first endorsed candidate was Mikulski in 1986, endorsed Edwards last week.
“Donna Edwards is a true progressive champion with an outstanding record of fighting for women and families in Congress,” Stephanie Schriock, the organization’s president, said in a press release. “She is poised to make history as the second African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate — the first in over two decades.”
The group cited Edwards’ work to get Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, when Edwards was a community organizer, and her more recent work backing much of the group’s supported legislation, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Affordable Care Act and funding for Planned Parenthood.
Meanwhile, Van Hollen has swayed a number of women’s issues activists of his own, namely membership of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland and current and former lawmakers, including state Sens. Susan Lee, Nancy King and Mary Boergers, and Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez and Carol Petzold.
In endorsing Van Hollen, Susan Turnbull, former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, former vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of Jewish Women International, said that the choice between Van Hollen and Edwards was an easy one.
“For me, looking at who I might want to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate, there is no other candidate that I can see who I think would be a better senator for the state of Maryland,” said Turnbull. “To me, what a leader does is bring people with you and throughout his career, Chris Van Hollen has done that. He has taken on the issues that I personally feel are important for myself, for my family and for my community.”
Turnbull said that she did consider backing a female candidate, but felt that her belief in Van Hollen’s abilities exceeded this concern.
“I have no qualms about women running for office,” she said. “[A woman has] every right and responsibility [to run for office] if she thinks she is the best candidate for that seat.”