An interview with Mckayla Wilkes, Democratic Party Candidate for the 5th District in Maryland:
Adam Stromme: Hello everyone, my name is Adam Stromme. I am a member of the Publications Editorial Board of the Washington Socialist. The Washington Socialist is the official paper of the Metro D.C. branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Today we are speaking with McKayla Wilkes, a congressional candidate running for the 5th District of Maryland, currently occupied by House Majority leader Steny Hoyer.
McKayla, thanks for being with us. There are four sections I want to cover for our readers, each of which follows in logic progression from the previous. They are: (1) the coronavirus and the campaign; (2) adapting to the new environment, state of the race, important milestones; (3) thoughts on the latest developments nationally; and (4) the race going forward.
Since we last spoke, the most decisive development has been the onset of the coronavirus and the international recession that has since broken out. At the time of this interview, almost 2 million people globally have caught the virus, and over 20 thousand Americans have died [this number has more than doubled by the time of publication]. All this comes despite unprecedented measures to prevent its spread, including the first time in American history that all 50 states have declared national emergencies as a result of the same threat. At the same time, Washington has passed a gargantuan stimulus package of over $2.2 trillion to try to keep the economy online, which included $504 billion in largely discretionary spending for the administration to give to large corporations and state and local governments.
What do you think of how the coronavirus has been dealt with in the United States? What do you think are the main victories, and shortcomings, of the current stimulus package?
McKayla Wilkes: To be honest I am grateful that the government passed anything at all. But this is breadcrumbs compared to what people actually need. A one time, means- tested program that doesn’t even pay for a one bedroom apartment is simply not enough. What we need is more like a temporary, universal basic income until we are through the worst of this.
Would you support something like what Andrew Yang proposed in his 2020 Presidential run?
Sort of. I don’t fully agree with Yang’s proposal, but something like mine would be better. $2,500 for every household, and $500 per child would be the kind of proposal I could get behind.
Despite measures like these, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund says she expects the fallout from the Great Lockdown to be the worst since the Great Depression of 1929. Even now, more than 6.6 million Americans have already lost their jobs. Your own campaign has released information trying to direct residents to places that can help them most.
What do you think policymakers should do to help working class Americans? What particular issues are you hearing about in Prince George’s County?
MW: In addition to the universal basic income, we need to have a nationwide rent and mortgage freeze, guaranteed paid sick leave, and the ending of at-will employment. To me, the fact that millions of people were able to be thrown out so quickly was appalling. Some people who had just started new jobs aren’t even able to have access to unemployment insurance. We also need to provide a stronger focus on a more equitable apportionment of the stimulus, as well as stronger measures to prevent mass layoffs.
In PG county specifically, there are two major issues. One, the majority of people that are contracting and dying from the coronavirus are black people. This to me really highlights the disparities that our political system has had long before the coronavirus. So while political figures tend to put the blame on individuals and communities themselves, I think it has less to do with that and more to do with the serious underlying conditions that adversely affect African American communities as a population.
Though it now feels quite remote, I was hoping to jump back to a major controversy little more than 2 months ago. During that period, debate raged over the importance of impeaching Trump on charges related to his soliciting of foreign assistance and obstruction of justice. Some saw it as essential, others as merely obligatory, and a few as distracting and inconsequential.
Do you think the move to impeach was justified? Did it have its intended effect?
MW: I know that it was justified. I don’t think that it had the effect that we thought it would, if only because the Democratic leadership only chose to issue articles of impeachment when it was politically expedient. He should have been forced to account for a lot of other serious charges, on everything from his abuse of office for personal gain to his treatment of migrants on the border.
I think this gets back to the importance of accountability writ large. To take your previous question, Trump’s administration has known for months that the virus was going to get worse, and was going to eventually make its way to the United States, and yet they did nothing. And this isn’t just a Trump thing, this has been a problem of the entire administration.
Any thoughts on Trump’s decision to pull funding for the WHO?
MW: I think that Trump has been obsessed with playing the blame game. In this case, I think that he feels that by defunding them he somehow proves that he is right in blaming them. In any case, cutting funding in this way is dictatorial, and grossly irresponsible to do in the middle of a pandemic. Luckily for us, the WHO is an international organization, so the organization should be able to weather his decision.
I now want to move on to the race itself. Also since we last spoke, you have picked up a great many notable endorsements including Brand New Congress, Our Revolution Maryland, and of course Metro DC DSA itself.
How have these organizations intersected with yours, and how has it affected your campaign?
They’ve done a wonderful job at helping us. Each group has played its part in door knocking, fundraising, social media, and phone banking. In fact, a few of Metro DSA’s members have been at the core of our campaign. On the outreach front, Brand New Congress has also been a major resource putting us in contact with people in the district to help us spread our message far and wide!
Obviously one of the most grievous effects of the coronavirus lockdown has been the inability to go door to door and canvass residents.
How has your campaign dealt with this unprecedented challenge?
MW: I have gotten this question a lot, and it just dawned on me recently that the way we are campaigning right now is the exact way that all grassroot campaigns start out. This was where we were in the beginning, before we had any money to book ourt events. When we didn’t have any social media. For that reason, a lot of our events were virtual, and all of our volunteers were studying abroad, and in different time zones. So, for us, considering the fact that we are all at least in the same time zone now, I would say that it is a pretty smooth transition.
That said, I do miss being outside! I miss the outdoors, and the ability to make that connection with the voters of Maryland 5. It has been different, but it is not new for us as a grassroots campaign.
AS: Running a campaign by and for the working class is no easy feat. Steny is one of the most powerful politicians in the United States, representing some of the most powerful interests. As of December 31st, 2019, his campaign held almost $1.5 million. Your campaign, by contrast, has retained a people-focused grassroots fundraising structure.
How do you intend to leverage your campaign’s strengths to counteract Hoyer’s large fundraising capabilities and name recognition?
MW: Good question! The thing about Hoyer’s fundraising capabilities is that he is largely funded by the same core of corporations. At the same time, these corporations are responsible for a lot of the pain that working class families feel. Whether that be fossil fuel interests, insurance companies, the prison-industrial complex, and the like.
So with that, we were never going to outraise Hoyer. That said, there is something to be said about the fact that we have outraised Hoyer 5:1 in small -donations. My campaign has raised over $200,000 from small-dollar donations, and I think that shows a real difference in enthusiasm between the people who are supporting our campaign, and those who are supporting Hoyer. At the end of the day, that is how we get over the funding gap.
When we talk about Hoyer’s name recognition, it’s important to recognize that it goes both ways. People want change. We have been getting great momentum from people who want to learn the truth about Hoyer, and I can’t tell you how many people are surprised to learn that Hoyer does the things that he does. This is how he gets away with it, he floats under the radar.
People like to talk about Mitch McConnell’s graveyard, but what about Steny Hoyer’s graveyard?
When you think about the world we will be entering back into after corona, people are going to want a lot more from their politicians than name recognition. I want to provide that for people.
AS: This is exactly where I was hoping to go with my next question. As you well know now, with so much attention focused on the national- level crisis, it is a perfect opportunity for career politicians to continue their march to reelection under the resulting confusion and deafening silence around the life that in many domains continues as usual.
How has the Hoyer campaign been responding to these challenges? Are they recognizing the seriousness of the challenge you pose to him?
MW: Oh they definitely are noticing us. Remember, Steny Hoyer has not run a proper campaign since 1982. Right before this interview, we learned that Hoyer has been looking for people to canvas, knock on doors, and phone banks for him. Nobody remembers the last time that they heard from their own congressperson! I think that speaks volumes.
One of the reasons you gave for entering the race in the first place was the victory of New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Another one you have been particularly vocal about more recently has been the success and importance of the Sanders campaign. As you know, Sanders suspended his campaign last week.
What are some of the reasons you think Sanders’ campaign ended when and as it did?
MW: I think Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign because of what we saw in Wisconsin and Illinois. People were being given a choice there between public safety and exercising peoples’ right to vote. I think Sanders really cared about people, and with COVID raging through the country, he figured that he would be more effective in wielding his influence from the Senate, and didn’t want people to have to make that choice.
I commend Bernie for working, not so much with Biden, but for lighting the fire underneath him to deal with things like single-payer, student debt relief, and climate change. Bernie is doing a great job in showing Biden that he needs his supporters if he is going to win in November. Biden is learning that he cannot count on Sanders’ support to coast through the general election, and the more he comes to realize that the more influential Sanders’ movement will be.
What do you make of the concessions of the Biden camp so far?
MW: Like the stimulus, they’re breadcrumbs. Lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 from 65 is an absurd excuse for a “compromise” with the Left. Everyone deserves healthcare. On top of that, lowering the age doesn’t do anything to improve the quality of healthcare that people get, which is especially dangerous given that we are in the middle of a devastating pandemic.
One example of how small these compromises have been so far: Recently I was listening to a livestream with Biden and Sanders, and in it Sanders talked about the importance of having free public college. And when Sanders asked what Biden would do to make public education free for everyone, Biden said that we should forgive student loan debt for low-income families at a minimum of $10,000, and said that students should be given further opportunities to borrow. It was insane.
It’s not looking promising at this point, but hopefully he will move somewhat further left as the campaign moves on.
In an interview with Current Affairs magazine, you said that for your campaign “voter turnout is everything”
How have you fought to raise awareness of your campaign and foster turnout in these adverse times?
MW: At this point in time, we’re doing much the same as we were before. A lot more people are at home, so a lot more are looking at those who are in positions of leadership, and to candidates to see what they can do. They are learning that this is going to get worse before it gets any better. We aim to set the standard of how.
One thing that I wasn’t expecting in addition to increasing voter turnout is that you have a lot of people who were completely politically disengaged who are now becoming active for the first time in their lives. Everyone is trying to find out who their representative is. Everyone is trying to be more politically aware, and that is something that has been a huge boon to our campaign.
Another thing that has helped our campaign is that this crisis has brought them to acutely see the state of our current politics. They are learning that they are a lot more “left” on the American political spectrum than they thought. I have an aunt, for example, who is a stauncht Biden supporter, and over the course of many dinner-table conversations about things like Democratic Socialism she has since told me she has come around to the idea of Democratic Socialism. Those are the kinds of conversations we are fighting to have, and we are definitely having them.
AS: This gets into my next point. In an interview you conducted last month with Jacobin magazine, you described yourself as a Democratic Socialist, and [provided your interpretation of Democratic Socialism].
How do you respond to those who remain skeptical about the viability of Democratic Socialism? Conversely, what do you say to those that are skeptical Democratic Socialism can ever be a part of the modern Democratic Party platform?
MW: To those who are skeptical: look around you. Socialism, and socialists, are saving us. Even though this one one-time payment from the government is a shadow of what socialism can be, it is a peek into what we could actually do if we embraced Democratic Socialism, and if we did have a government that was based around serving people.
The reason that people are going crazy about figuring out how to respond to coronavirus is because governments are learning that responding to this means, to some small extent, they have to put people first. And while they are learning this now in an emergency, if they had realized that earlier we would be in a completely different state, a much more prepared state, than we are now.
To those who are skeptical that Democratic Socialism could ever be a part of the Democratic Party, I would have to say this. I don’t like that Democratic Socialism is treated as this alien thing. This is supposed to be what being a member of the Democratic Party is about. So much of what we are fighting for has been a part of the bread and butter of the Democratic Party platform before. What Democratic Socialism is about is renewing and expanding those horizons in the Democratic Party.
How can those that want to learn more, or pitch in to your campaign, help you?
MW: If anyone wants to learn more about us, mckayla2020.com has lots of information about our campaign, and how to volunteer. Additionally, although we are a race of people versus money, we could use a bit of money as well, so if you are able we would always appreciate it!
Anything you would like to close with?
MW: A lot of us are scared right now. I am running for Congress, and I’m scared right now. I am not in a position to be able to change anything right now, but I am trying to be. In the meantime, stay safe, stay at home, and take everything day by day.
McKayla, thanks again for taking the time to be with us.