For leftists who care about electoral politics, 2020 has not been the year we had hoped for. The excitement around the Bernie Sanders campaign grew cautiously throughout the first couple primary contests and then peaked gloriously in Nevada, before giving way to disappointment after disappointment after disappointment. The Jim Clyburn endorsement, the South Carolina rout, the mass elite coalescence around Joe Biden—and then Super Tuesday, which quickly distinguished itself as one of the most devastating nights of my political sentience. Right now, the Republican mainstream represents an increasingly dangerous white nationalism, while the Democratic establishment has little more to offer than means-testing and platitudes. Does the political revolution have a future?
Now, there have certainly been encouraging primary victories this cycle—Marie Newman’s toppling of conservative Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski comes to mind. But nothing this year has resembled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in 2018: a seismic shift in Democratic politics, a win guaranteed to change the shape of the party for a generation to come. The Democratic Party remains solidly in the hands of a plutocratic old guard, led by figures like Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. So far, this year has been interpreted as a windfall for the Democratic establishment, but there’s a candidate that still has the opportunity to turn that narrative upside down. That candidate is Hoyer’s openly socialist primary challenger, Mckayla Wilkes.
Hoyer is a particularly odious character. As the second most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives, he has spent his nearly four decade-long career undermining progressive politics at every turn. Where representatives like AOC have advocated reasonable, evidence-based environmental measures designed to preserve the existence of human civilization, Hoyer has kneecapped their efforts; incidentally, Hoyer has received many campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry. Last spring, Ilhan Omar criticized widespread American political support for an Israeli government that often acts in brazen violation of international law. In response, Hoyer traveled down to AIPAC’s annual conference to blast a freshman member of his own caucus, declaring, “I stand with Israel, proudly and unapologetically.” Most people with even the briefest grasp of politics understand that Donald Trump’s border wall is less a serious immigration proposal than a gaudy monument to American xenophobia. Yet, Hoyer went on Fox News to insist the wall debate “ought to be not on morality or racism,” claiming further that targeted use of border walls “obviously” can work.
Progressives and leftists are running for Congress all across the country, and Steny Hoyer is doing his best to make sure they get crushed. In 2018, the Intercept turned up a call Hoyer made to a progressive congressional candidate in Colorado. Hoyer wanted the progressive, Levi Tillemann, to drop out and endorse the preferred candidate of the Democratic establishment, explaining that “a decision was made.”
Tillerman, incredulous, asked Hoyer, “So your position is, a decision was made very early on before voters had a say, and that’s fine because the DCCC knows better than the voters of the 6th Congressional District, and we should line up behind that candidate?”
“That’s certainly a consequence of our decision,” responded the leader of a party that claims to speak for the voiceless.
So we gotta get this guy out of office—and quick. Hoyer is perhaps the Democratic figure most singularly committed to preventing a left bloc from emerging in Congress. Until he’s forced out, it’s likely he’ll continue to funnel ungodly amounts of cash into the campaign coffers of right-wing Democrats facing primary challenges. And when insurgent candidates actually manage to defeat his machine, we can expect he’ll continue to undermine them at every turn once they arrive on the Hill. If, by some miracle, we manage to respond humanely to the many crises these next several decades will bring, it’ll be because we managed to force the Steny Hoyers of the world out of public life.
Thankfully, on June 2, voters in Maryland’s 5th congressional district have a chance to do just that. All they have to do is bubble in their mail-in ballot for Mckayla Wilkes. This race is—no exaggeration—the left’s best chance in 2020 for an AOC-type transformative event. Indeed, since Hoyer is considerably more powerful than Joe Crowley ever was, a victory by Mckayla Wilkes would be a bigger story than AOC. It would cause panic among conservative Democratic politicians all across the country and send a crystal-clear message: You may have money, but we’ve got people, and we’re more powerful than you. Former Bernie supporters looking for a shred of hope during the present national nightmare should focus their attention—and maybe even their volunteer time or financial resources—on Maryland’s 5th district. Something incredible could happen here.
Mckayla is a normal person (a working class mother of two who’s lived in southern Maryland nearly all her life), but she makes for an extremely abnormal congressional candidate. Most congressional candidates are white dudes who have gone to fancy colleges: Mckayla is not. To get support from the Democratic campaign committee, congressional candidates frequently must pass a “phone test“: Can they raise at least $250,000 from just the contacts in their phone? Mckayla would not pass the phone test.
Growing up working class, Wilkes and her family relied on government benefits like SNAP for financial support. When she was a teenager, her beloved aunt was killed in the 9/11 attacks in Washington, D.C. The sudden tragedy caused Mckayla to run away from home and act out, so she found herself in and out of juvenile detention for much of her high school years. As she later put it, “What I needed was someone to talk to, and what I received was being shackled.” As she grew into early adulthood, she continued to experience many of the injustices working people of color face every day. She was arrested for marijuana possession. Her driver’s license was suspended for failing to pay traffic citations, which prevented her from driving to work, which, in turn, prevented her from paying her traffic citations. Despite all odds, she raised two children and held down a full-time job, all while attending community college.
While in jail, she once spoke with a woman who couldn’t afford to pay her bail, and whose relatives couldn’t even afford to call her. Mckayla took down the phone numbers of those relatives, and called them herself once she was released. While recognizing the profound importance of that kind of personal assistance, Mckayla has, over the years, come to believe that comprehensively serving working people requires political power, not just individual action. And so, inspired in part by Bernie Sanders and AOC, she decided to run for Congress. Here in MD-05—a district encompassing dense suburbs outside Washington D.C., the sprawling campus of a major research university, and hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline—a formerly incarcerated person is going toe-to-toe with a congressional power broker who vocally supported the biggest crime bill in American history.
I may be somewhat biased, because I’ve helped out a bit with Mckayla’s campaign, but I think she’s a deeply decent person. In an early campaign call last year, I remember being bowled over by her moral instincts. At one point she mentioned offhandedly that she was friends with some homeless people in her neighborhood and that she would occasionally give them a place to sleep at night. This is an unusual thing to do, yet Mckayla’s nonchalance suggested that this was a fairly obvious moral calculation for her: someone didn’t have a place to sleep, so she gave them a place to sleep. For me, that instinct is infinitely more valuable in a congressperson than an elite law degree, or the ability to pass the “phone test.”
The campaign that’s sprung up around Mckayla also deviates from the establishment mold. For one thing, it didn’t start with a conversation between the candidate and a hired consultant, or the candidate and a DCCC operative. It started as a phone call between Mckayla and some students at the University of Maryland, who saw that Mckayla had filed to run and wanted to help out. I was one of those students. We launched the campaign with a website, a Twitter account and not much more. There’s an official campaign headquarters now, but for a long time most phonebanks and canvases started from a student house in College Park. On a standard Monday evening at the house, you could find an elderly woman (just off from group swim class) packed next to an undergraduate (just off his afternoon chemistry class), both making calls for Mckayla while cheap pizza sat on the countertop.
The campaign’s expansion beyond its “posting-only phase” sprung almost entirely from talking to a lot of people—in person, on the phone, and online. At the very beginning of the campaign, a MD-05 resident named Tom saw one of Mckayla’s social media posts. He had been frustrated with Hoyer for a long time, and so he attended her campaign kickoff event. A few months later, he got laid off and had the time to start canvassing. The campaign quickly figured out that he was really, really good at canvassing, as well as inspiring other canvassers—and so now Tom manages the canvassers and phone bankers. This is how you staff up on a campaign that doesn’t have access to high-dollar Democratic consultants.
It turns out that talking to a lot of people can work wonders. Hundreds and hundreds of people have volunteered for Mckayla, knocking on tens of thousands of doors. Her campaign has raised over $300,000, nearly all from small dollar donations. In fact, Mckayla has raised nearly six times more from small donations than Hoyer. Of course, the coronavirus has thrown a wrench in the canvassing operation, forcing a new emphasis on phone banking and direct mail. Since the arrival of COVID-19, Mckayla staffers and volunteers have called more than 100,000 voters. After noticing how easily folks were convinced to vote for Mckayla, they’ve adopted something of an unofficial motto: “If we talk to enough people, we win.”
Soon after canvassing had to be suspended, Mckayla’s campaign manager, Dash Yeatts-Lonske, held a big Zoom call to strategize how to continue campaigning during a pandemic. To kick things off, he asked everyone to say a few words about why they were still fighting for Mckayla, jokingly encouraging everyone to use the words “now more than ever” in their response. “Now more than ever, we need members of congress who support the Green New Deal”; “now more than ever, we need a congresswoman who doesn’t take money from Big Pharma”; etc.
I know that “now more than ever” has become a meme—but folks, sometimes the memes are instructive! 2020 has been a dreadful year. The virus has laid bare a dizzying array of inequalities and cruelties, and our political system seems devoid of the slightest humanity. I couldn’t pick a better time for a transformative political event, one that scares the shit out of bad people in high places and refocuses our moral concern toward the poor, the meek, and the vulnerable. I couldn’t pick a better time for Mckayla to win.