Rep. Anthony Brown was elected to Congress last November to fill the seat that had been occupied by Donna Edwards prior to her unsuccessful run for the Senate. Edwards had been one of the more progressive members of Congress, winning her seat in an insurgent campaign against Democratic incumbent who had voted for the war in Iraq. Thereafter she continued to be a critic of unbridled militarism and took a far more even-handed approach to Israel-Palestinian issues than most members of Congress. The combination of having challenged an incumbent Democrat and refusing to march in lockstep with those who reject all criticism of Israel meant that her relationship to the Democratic power structure was lukewarm at best -- during last year's Democratic primary, that establishment almost universally supported the very mainstream Chris Van Hollen over her. The fact that most statewide political leaders who claimed that it was important to support a woman for president failed to support her, the fact that most black office holders refused to support the first African American woman to run as a major party candidate for Senate in the state, reflects the difficulty faced in efforts to make the Democratic Party a vehicle for change.
For those who live in Prince George's County (the center of Brown's district) support for Brown from the Democratic establishment raises the question of where he will stand on the issues. He made a promising start when he spoke at a town hall meeting sponsored by Progressive Cheverly on April 6. In response to questions posed from the floor, Brown spoke of the need to preserve and protect the gains in health coverage made during the Obama Administration, a pledge he has kept by joining other Democrats and some few Republicans in opposing the deeply reactionary legislation proposed and passed in the House and now up for consideration in the Senate.
Brown has also distinguished himself by being a co-sponsor of Conyers' Medicare for All( HR676) bill, unlike most House Democrats (Rep. Steny Hoyer, the senior member of the Maryland Democrats in Congress, has refused to support universal health care). Serving on the Ethics Committee, he has also pledged to hold the Trump administration to account. A bill he has co-sponsored that defines (and thus limits) the grounds for presidential firing of an FBI director is a step in that direction. He also spoke knowledgeably about labor rights and in particular of the need to defend federal employees whose union and workplace rights are currently under threat by the Trump administration. Several people asked about climate change and environmental protection, and he spoke of the positive work done by the O'Malley administration in Maryland (Brown had served as lieutenant governor) and he said he would build on that legacy while in Congress.
Responding to a question about his loss in the Maryland gubernatorial race to Republican Larry Hogan in 2014, Brown acknowledged that a principal cause was the weakness of the Democratic Party at the grassroots, by implication, the same reason Trump is now in the White House. He said that the Democratic Party needed to be closer to communities and that communities need to put pressure on elected officials, himself included. Part of carrying out that commitment is keeping his office open and accessible to the public; he has also followed through on that. Only in one arena has he disappointed so far, albeit it an important one, and that is around the question of peace in the Middle East.
A group including representatives from Jewish Voice for Peace DC Metro, Maryland affiliates of Peace Action, Prince George's County Peace and Justice Coalition, and Progressive Cheverly and Metro DC Democratic Socialists met with Brown at his office in Largo, Maryland, on April 21 (three DSA members were part of the delegation). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the importance of US policy taking into account Palestinian rights and needs. The question arose because Brown, along with Rep. Jamie Raskin and all the other Democratic members of Congress from Maryland, joined with Republicans last January in voting to criticize President Obama's decision not to veto a UN resolution criticizing Israel's policy of building settlements on the land that it seized and has illegally occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The vote against Obama's action was a vote for US unilateralism, for maintenance of a status quo that has given us endless wars, and for a continuation of the denial of Palestinian rights. Moreover, it was an action that moves against the renewal of the Democratic Party from the base up. Change will never happen without a determined peace policy.
Unfortunately, shortly after the meeting, Brown agreed to co-sponsor legislation undermining the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Modeled on the successful campaign waged by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS movement is a form of nonviolent civic action by Palestinians, and the Israeli government and its supporters oppose the movement with fervor. Attempting to penalize BDS supporters has a chilling effect on civil liberties even beyond the specifics of the campaign for Palestinian rights. Boycotts that inflict economic harm on businesses or governments have been an important tool of labor and social justice movements, from the bus boycott in Montgomery to the United Farm Workers grape boycott to the recent boycott against the state of North Carolina because of its anti-transgender bathroom law. Such connections show the danger to civil rights when militarism is unquestioned; by reason of making that connection an anti-BDS measure was defeated this past session in Maryland.
During his talk in Cheverly, Brown cited an anecdote told him by Rep. James E. Clyburn in South Carolina about a lone freed slave holding a broom, confronting a troop of Confederate soldiers at the end of the Civil War. The officer asked if she thought the she could stop them alone with her broom; her reply was no, but you will know I took a stand. An inspiring story meant to remind us that it is important to continue to stand up for what we believe, even in the face of defeat. It is only through organizing that some Trump and Ryan initiatives have been defeated to date, despite Republican control of all branches of government. Thus, we should follow Brown's advice and continue our activism at the local level by supporting him where he takes a progressive stance and challenging him in areas where we differ. Only in this way can we lay the groundwork for the political alternative we need.