Democratic congressional candidate McKayla Wilkes speaks to prospective campaign donors and volunteers at a fundraiser in Chesapeake Beach. (Photo: Julia Lerner)
CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Md. (Sept. 20, 2019)—The clean, white living room of Paul Zeitz's summer house looked out at the vast expanse of the Chesapeake Bay's choppy waves Saturday. Twelve guests sat on a white L-shaped couch and chairs dispersed on the room's gray wood floors while McKayla Wilkes told her life story.
"My dad actually died before I was born," Wilkes told Capital News Service from the couch. Her aunts played a formative role in her upbringing, and despite that original trauma, "our family was very close."
Wilkes—a 29-year-old Waldorf resident challenging House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer for the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 5th Congressional District—was holding two simultaneous campaign events for the first time that day.
In addition to the meeting and fundraiser at Zeitz's beach house, her staff was canvassing in College Park, campaign manager Dash Yeatts-Lonske said.
Wilkes said she was placed in juvenile detention for skipping school as a teenager, and as a young working adult, had to drive to work on a suspended license after being unable to pay traffic tickets.
"The (criminal justice) system isn't broken—it's fixed against people like me," she said.
But the insurgent victory of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, combined with revocation of her financial aid at Prince George's Community College, motivated Wilkes to take the plunge and run for Congress.
"People like us—regular, working-class people—are left out of the conversation in the halls of Congress," Wilkes said, and noted her campaign was "100%" committed to replicating the sucker punch Ocasio-Cortez's campaign landed on the then-incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley.
Wilkes has tangled with her prospective rival before.
At the State of Justice Symposium hosted by State's Attorney Aisha Braveboy at the Hotel at the University of Maryland on Sept. 10, she criticized Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, for being inconsistent in his stance on cannabis.
Hoyer spoke at the event and said people should not be jailed for marijuana offenses, but had recently referred to marijuana as a "gateway drug."
Wilkes said a constituent reached out to Hoyer asking about his stance on cannabis legalization. Hoyer wrote a letter in response to the constituent, who then shared it with the news outlet Marijuana Moment.
Marijuana Moment reported on the letter Aug. 27. In it, Hoyer referred to cannabis as "a threshold drug that leads to the use of harder, very harmful drugs."
Hoyer pushed back against the claim, telling Capital News Service the statement came from "an old letter." He also said he was a longtime supporter of medical marijuana, and defended states' rights to legalize the substance.
"Alcohol is legal, cigarettes are legal… If states want to make (marijuana) legal, that's fine," Hoyer said.
Marijuana Moment published the letter—dated Aug. 26—in its story.
Hoyer, the second-most powerful Democrat in the House caucus, is a Washington establishment figure who's served 20 terms in office.
Wilkes presents herself as a foil—a working class mother of two from a hardscrabble upbringing who's struggled to get ahead.
If elected to represent the district, Wilkes said her chief legislative priorities would include the "Green New Deal," "Medicare for All" and criminal justice reform. Hoyer has thus far not explicitly endorsed the "Green New Deal" nor "Medicare for All."
Wilkes campaign volunteer Richard Elliot told Capital News Service that "McKayla is running on lived experience and progressive issues; Hoyer is running simply on name recognition."
Wilkes' campaign faces a daunting battle against the incumbent, who won reelection with 67% of the vote in 2018, according to data from the Maryland State Board of Elections. In the Democratic primary that year, Hoyer captured 83% of the vote.
Federal Election Commission records indicate her campaign had received $51,602 in total contributions between Jan. 1 and the end of June and reported $42,493 in cash on hand.
Hoyer's campaign, meanwhile, had brought in nearly $1.3 million in the same period, with $865,414 cash on hand.
"At this point," Wilkes said, "we're basically canvassing, trying to get out and speak with voters. We've been door knocking. We're just doing outreach," which she said would be a long-term campaign strategy.
Brand New Congress, a progressive organization known for backing Ocasio-Cortez, endorsed Wilkes on Sept. 10.
While the organization doesn't contribute funding, Wilkes said the group will be helping with connections and fundraising.
Wilkes isn't alone in her challenge to Hoyer.
Briana Urbina, an attorney based in Hyattsville, is also seeking the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 5th Congressional District. Bryan Cubero of Lexington Park is running as the district's sole Republican candidate.
UPCOMING: Profiles of Hoyer and another Democratic primary opponent, Briana Urbina.