A Split Among Labor Groups Has Made a Maryland Primary Suddenly Contentious

In the Democratic primary for county executive in Prince George's County, even some locals from the same union have backed different candidates.

Donna Edwards, left, and Angela Alsobrooks, two of the leading contenders in the Democratic primary race in Prince George county, take part in a local parade in Seat Pleasant, Md., on May 5, 2018. Photos: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

What was once thought to be a quiet Democratic primary in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has turned into a competitive race for the county’s highest elected official — thanks in large part to a split among organized labor.

On June 26, residents of what’s colloquially referred to as “PG County” or just “PG,” will cast ballots for county executive, a person tasked with managing all government departments and agencies. PG County’s outgoing county executive, Rushern Baker, who is term-limited after eight years in office, is now gunning for the state’s governorship. In a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1, the winner of June’s Democratic primary in the county executive race is all but certain to win the general election in November.

While there are nine Democrats vying for the spot, the top two candidates in the race are Angela Alsobrooks and Donna Edwards. Unions are divided over the women, citing their political records and sources of funding. Even some locals from the same union have backed different candidates. There are four SEIU locals in Prince George’s County, for example, and while the two largest — SEIU 500 and SEIU 32BJ — back Edwards, SEIU 1199 and SEIU 400 are supporting Alsobrooks. (This is quite different from the Maryland governor’s race, where unions have largely coalesced around one Democratic candidate, Ben Jealous.)

Edwards, who represented Prince George’s County in the House of Representatives from 2008 to 2017, was the first black woman elected to Congress from Maryland. She’s a frequent guest on MSNBC and, in 2016, ran against Chris Van Hollen for U.S. Senate, in a race where she received considerable support from EMILY’s List. Taking on the white male dominance of the Senate was central to Edwards’s ultimately unsuccessful bid.

That’s not the case this time around, as her main competitor is also an African-American woman and a single working mother. Alsobrooks, who has served as PG County’s elected state’s attorney since 2011 and led the county’s Revenue Authority for six years before that, leads the race in fundraising. With less than four weeks to go, Alsobrooks has $848,326 on hand, compared to Edwards’s $240,884, according to campaign finance reports.

With nearly a million residents, Prince George’s County, just outside of Washington, D.C., is the second most populous county in Maryland and one of the wealthiest black-majority counties in the United States. Sixty-five percent of Prince Georgians are African-American, and the county’s median household income stands at $76,700, compared to a U.S. median household income of $56,400.

The two main issues in the campaign are economic development and schools. Prince George’s County public schools have been racked by scandal over the last year and a half, and both candidates speak of the need for more development, bringing more wraparound services to schools and reducing class sizes. PG County’s teachers union, which represents 9,000 members working in the district’s public schools, is backing Edwards in the primary.

The contest has escalated in recent weeks following the release of new mailers and online ads by a pro-Edwards Super PAC funded by unions. The ads accuse Alsobrooks of pay-to-play politics and allege that she’s beholden to real estate developers. One flier says, “Wealthy developers control Prince George’s County Government. Pay-to-play Angela Alsobrooks is right in the middle of it.” The Super PAC is funded primarily by the hospitality workers union, Unite Here Local 25, and the construction workers union, LiUNA.

According to the latest campaign filing reports, 85 percent of Edwards’s contributions were for less than $150, with about 30 percent coming from residents who live in Prince George’s County. Roughly 80 percent of Alsobrooks’s donors came from PG County, and 73 percent were from small-dollar contributors. But she has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate developers. Edwards, by contrast, has pledged not to accept developer money.

The history of the county executive office makes the ads particularly contentious. In 2011, Baker’s predecessor, Jack Johnson, was sentenced to jail for seven years on shocking corruption, bribery, and extortion charges. Baker, who ran on a platform of “clean government” has spent the last eight years working to rebuild the county’s tarnished reputation.

Alsobrooks has called the ads an “evil lie” and “offensive.” “They are calling me a criminal,” she said in a press conference held in mid-May. “I am deeply offended. It is unfair, irresponsible, and unethical.”

“The fact that a Super PAC is involved ought to be very troubling. … It all reminds me of Trump.”

The Super PAC has raised more than $650,000 to help elect Edwards. Alsobrooks has tried to frame that money as coming from “outsiders” — since Unite Here’s headquarters is based in D.C. and LiUNA’s is in Reston, Virginia. But Local 25 represents 3,200 members who work in PG County, and LiUNA represents 1,500 PG County workers. In an interview with The Intercept, Alsobrooks went so far as to say the Super PAC reminds her of Donald Trump’s tactics. “These are outsiders trying to divide our community and create fear and negativity,” she said. “The fact that a Super PAC is involved ought to be very troubling. This is also what Donna said she was against in 2015 when she said she was against outside big money. It all reminds me of Trump.”  

Mark McLaurin, political director for SEIU Local 500, which also endorsed Edwards but has not contributed to this particular Super PAC, told The Intercept that he “rejects out of hand that there is some equivalence” between a union-funded Super PAC and a real estate developer that gives the maximum contribution of $6,000 or puts half a million dollars into a Super PAC.

“By the law the only money that unions have to use for political activity are the small-dollar donations from members who are often making just $12 and $15 an hour,” he said. “But they contribute because they believe in the power of the union’s collective political operation to balance the scales. When you’re attacking a Super PAC that’s funded off the back of voluntary contributions from workers, you are in effect attacking workers.”

McLaurin also referenced an upcoming Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, in which the court is expected to strike a heavy blow to public-sector unions. “With the Janus decision hanging over our heads, which is a kill shot aimed at working folk, the idea that a Democrat who calls themselves progressive would participate in the demonizing of unions is really just shameful, unacceptable, and underscores why we decided not to back her,” he said.

Local 500 is also notably aiming to unseat Maryland’s Senate president, Mike Miller, who has served in the legislature for the last 43 years. McLaurin has linked his union’s support for Edwards to this larger effort, telling the Washington Post that electing Edwards would be a “body blow” to the Democratic establishment.

Alsobrooks maintains that there hasn’t really been a labor split, noting that a majority of unions have backed her. “What’s more interesting is that unions that supported Donna’s Senate race in 2016, like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, are now backing me this time,” she told the Intercept. “The Amalgamated Transit Union, the SEIU, the AFGE — they were previously supporters of Donna and now they endorsed me.”

Unions that previously backed Edwards and now support her opponent point to Edwards’s track record in Congress.

Pat Lippold, vice president of political action for SEIU 1199, which represents nurses and hospital workers, told The Intercept that her union decided not to back Edwards after being let down by her tenure in the federal government. “We put hundreds of thousands of dollars into an independent expenditure to back her for Congress when she ran in 2008, and we were thrilled to elect her,“ she said. Lippold said that when Edwards was in office, though, the representative would not return the union’s phone calls and was generally unresponsive to their concerns. “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” Lippold explained, was when the union asked for Edwards’s support in fighting a new hospital operated by a provider known to be anti-union that would compete with a unionized one nearby. Edwards resisted and the unionized hospital is now closed. “People want to profess that she was so pro-union. Well, that was not a pro-union move,” said Lippold. “We met with her repeatedly to try to mend fences, but not once did she acknowledge that that was a problem or that she could have done something different.”

Edwards told The Intercept that she feels that she’s “on the right side of history” with that hospital episode, and that she “doesn’t even understand the argument” that the union is making. Edwards said that every Maryland member of Congress supported the new hospital, yet she’s “the only one that 1199 has held that against.” It’s “kind of bogus,” she said.

Alsobrooks’s tenure in local government has also inspired some support.

When she led the state’s attorney’s office, she increased the number of staffers, as well as their salaries and benefits, which is one thing that earned her SEIU 1199’s backing, Lippold said. “A lot of our members are overworked and underpaid, and Angela’s work going and fighting for money and additional staff really struck our union,” she said.

McLaurin of SEIU 500 said he thinks that workers who represent the lower end of the economic spectrum, like fast-food workers, janitorial staff, and adjuncts, have tended to back Edwards, while some of the more higher-earning unionized workers have rallied behind Alsobrooks.

The question over who can command the true mantle of a “grassroots” campaign has been hotly contested.

The question over who can command the true mantle of a “grassroots” campaign has been hotly contested. Unite Here Local 25’s President Linda Martin, who is also a resident of Prince George’s County, told The Intercept that her members are very “fired up” for Edwards. “We’re putting this excitement into direct action,” she said. “Our members have been out knocking doors every other Saturday since February, canvassing in teams of 30 to 50 union members each time. Between our face-to-face canvassing and our regular phone-banking, we’re reaching thousands of Prince George’s County voters.”

Alsobrooks, though, is being supported by a smaller PAC, a political arm of a group that represents minority-led businesses and nonprofits in Prince George’s County. The head of that PAC, Sandy Pruitt, told The Intercept that her group sees itself as the grassroots voice, pushing for constituencies who don’t often get a seat at the table. “It’s a small clique in this county who makes decisions, but Angela has demonstrated she wants to ensure we get our voices heard,” she said.

Pruitt dismissed Edwards’s claim of being a grassroots candidate. “Donna is not out here going around listening to all the groups, and she’s not doing the hard work on the ground because Donna has gotten $660,000 from outside groups,” she said. “I was someone who supported Donna getting elected to Congress, but once she got in, she never came out to one of our events in her eight years in Congress, and we’re the largest grassroots organization representing the community.”

Despite both leading candidates being women of color, they each say they’ve experienced subtle discrimination while campaigning.  

Many have asked whether electing Alsobrooks — who has served in local government for a long time — would essentially be a third term for Rushern Baker and his establishment ilk.

“It’s so sexist, so insulting,” Alsobrooks told The Intercept. “I’m an independently elected official, and, in my own right I’ve run two major agencies. I have a rock-solid record of accomplishments, but the perception is that if you’ve accomplished anything, there’s some guy you must be latching on to.”

Edwards, in turn, thinks some of the local coverage describing her has been unfairly gendered. “There is no question I’m very outspoken, I’m fearless, I’ve taken on some of the big developers in this fight, and if you look at some of the language that’s been used to describe me, I think some of the words that are used hint at the underlying impact of gender, irrespective of whether that’s front and center.”

Correction: June 1, 2018, 3:01 p.m.
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said that Donna Edwards had received a $1,000 contribution from the member of a family of real estate developers. The campaign has returned the contribution, so that reference has been removed from the story.

Top photo: Donna Edwards, left, and Angela Alsobrooks, two of the leading contenders in the Democratic primary race in Prince George county, take part in a local parade in Seat Pleasant, Md., on May 5, 2018.

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