Last week Mckayla Wilkes officially launched her campaign to run for Congress in Maryland, with hopes to unseat Rep. Steny Hoyer, the longest-serving House Democrat who represents Maryland’s 5th Congressional District.
This is Wilkes’ second effort running against Hoyer after bowing out of the 2020 primary race where she gained momentum among voting members of her district, primarily young adults and students. Wilkes, 30, received 26.7 percent of the vote in the primary compared to Hoyer’s 64.4 percent. While Hoyer went on to be re-elected, Wilkes’ popularity proved that her constituents agree that there’s room for change.
Against the juggernaut of a politician like Hoyer with long standing connections, as well as corporate and PAC donations, Wilkes runs on more of a grassroots level, relying solely on donations from community members.
Wilkes, a queer Black woman, mother, and essential worker, is part of a wave of activists who sought the ballot as a battleground to forge a new path for their communities. She advocates for equity in healthcare, reform in the criminal justice system and environmental justice.
Wilkes believes that her lived experience sets her apart from other candidates.
“Yes it’s important to have academic knowledge of different policies and the way they affect people,” she told NewsOne. “But when you have someone who’s directly impacted, it’s a total different kind of leadership. Which is why I don’t look at myself as a politician, I look at myself as a movement leader. And we need people that can take that movement from the ground into the halls of congress.”
NewsOne talked with Wilkes about the road ahead to 2022, her dreams for a Black future and the issues at large for her constituents, who live just outside the confines of Washington, D.C. and Capitol Hill.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NewsOne: You staged a primary run against Rep. Hoyer last year, what motivated you to return to the campaign stage again in 2021?
Mckayla Wilkes: What motivated me was that the movement was still there and that the issues in our communities are still there. As we can see COVID has highlighted all of the issues that already existed in our communities. People are still struggling to get healthcare, people are still fighting for a just system, as it pertains to criminal justice reform. We’re still in the fight for our mental justice. And my Congressman Steny Hoyer is still being consistent in his stagnation of actually passing policies that are centered around people. And so since the issues are still there, I decided that it is still very important for me to run to give people in my community a voice.
NO: In the current social justice and political climate, I wanted to talk about the emergence of more progressive candidates and if you align yourself as a progressive candidate?
MW: I do align myself with those values because it’s important to have people that have lived experience to represent those who also have those same kind of lived experience. Because my story is not just my story right? It’s the story of so many other people in this country and in my district. And so it’s important to have someone that can legislate from that point of view.
NO: As a mom and as a Black woman, the challenges you face every day are unique and particular. We have seen candidates open up more to share their personal experiences, which while painful, are relatable to many Americans. How have your experiences helped shape you?
MW: As far as being able to resonate with the constituency, I know what it’s like to have health insurance and be denied healthcare. I know what it’s like to not have health insurance and not have access to healthcare. Being pregnant and finding out that I have blood clots and watching my team of physicians have to haggle with my insurance company to pay for the medic that I needed in order to survive. But on top of that, being denied that healthcare and being sent away three times after going to the emergency room repeatedly and not having my pain taken seriously. I could have been that statistic with the high death maternal rate amongst Black women because our pain isn’t taken seriously. I’ve lived that. I’ve experienced our injustice system with being thrown into the school to prison pipeline, being incarcerated because essentially, I was dealing with grief. Being incarcerated for truancy, being incarcerated because I couldn’t pay a traffic ticket because of debt. I have all of these lived experiences that resonate with so many people. And that gives me a different viewpoint on leading, of being a voice for my community. Because I understand why we need a universal healthcare system. I understand why we need an actual criminal justice system, because what we have now is not a criminal justice system. It’s not based on justice at all. I think it’s important to tell those stories, but I think it’s even more important to lead from those stories as a person who is directly impacted.
NO: What is lacking in your particular community? What issues and concerns need to get up to Capitol Hill?
MW: One of the biggest issues is having access to healthcare. Not having to depend on an insurance system is a huge issue within our district especially as it pertains to racial disparities within the healthcare system, specifically for the Black population. Also housing, we have no really substantial, affordable housing within our district. And Steny Hoyer, my congressman, he doesn’t have any housing policy anywhere on his website. No plans for it. Another huge issue is environmental issues. In my district we have what is called a “sacrifice zone.” In Brandywine, Maryland, there are five power plants within a two to three-mile radius of elementary schools and neighborhoods in some cases. And Brandywine has a population of about 77 percent Black people. Our education system is highly dependent on property taxes which is a completely inequitable way to fund our schools. And speaking of environmental issues, public transportation is a huge issue. We are about 15-20 minutes away from Washington, D.C. on a good day. But on a bad day it can take you about two hours to get to work sometimes. So just thinking about that carbon footprint of cars sitting idly on highways when people are trying to get to work and trying to make it home. Those are some of the biggest issues in our district. Meaningful jobs that pay a living wage, which is really important. We should be able to work in our communities. In our district we have a lot of what we call “bedroom communities.” And it’s called a “bedroom community” because you literally can only spend time in your community to come home, eat dinner and go to bed.
NO: Politicians, like journalists, were once heralded as important and trustworthy. Now we’ve seen a shift in terms of trust, and reliability. If you are elected, how will you help restore trust to your constituents on a local level, which of course adds to the national conversation?
MW: I think the main thing is to always maintain transparency, to always be honest and to put people first. Because a huge part of why people don’t trust politics, or even the electoral process, I resonate with that. I was not always into politics. I recently got into politics in 2015. I was inspired by Bernie Sanders’ platform because he was the only candidate that I had ever seen talk about issues that were important to me that would make my life better and that made sense. When we change the narrative and when we put people first, I think that can bring trust between the people who wish to lead and people who are leading currently. Because we have to be more beholden to the people in our communities instead of big corporations. And we have to give people something to believe in. And we have to let people know that people are fighting for them. And I think that comes with being an organizer first, and an activist, a movement leader. Because we understand that struggle. Our struggle is one that is not unique. It’s important to always speak truth to power and maintain communication with your constituents. Which is something that I value and something that I plan to bring with me should I make it to Congress. Because I think it’s important to have that level of trust. And I think it’s important for your constituents to see you as a person. Which is why I do take pride in being transparent and sharing my stories and living 100 percent in my truth so that my prospective constituents and others can see that I’m not in this for me, I’m in this for we. And it’s not me fighting for us, it’s me fighting with us.
NO: What would a Black Future look like for you? Do you believe that there’s a possibility to turn around the feelings of distrust? That Black people can be heard and that policy can move to help restore equity?
MW: I think that the biggest thing in order to build trust within the Black community, as a Black woman, is we have to give tangibles. And it has to go beyond being performative. Not more kneeling in kente cloth, but not be willing to end qualified immunity. No more kneeling in kente cloth and not giving us reparations. I think just following through with promises that you made to the community and for once putting our needs first. And the only time that we are put first is maybe if it’s an election year, you might hear a few buzz words for the Black community. Which is why it’s important for me that we have a Black agenda. I see a lot of candidates and incumbents and you ask them, “What are you going to do for the Black community?” and they bring up all these policies. And it’s like, but what are you going to do specifically for the Black community? And the only thing that’s going to change that is being bold and actually pushing for legislation that’s going to help people in our community. That is the only way that we’re going to move forward, that we pass legislation that is actually going to have a criminal justice system centered around justice. One that is not led by bias. One that will not allow police to kill us with no repercussion. We need actual policy that is going to close the gap as it pertains to racial disparities within the healthcare system. We need better schools, we need to fund our HBCU’s. Black people’s liberation will be the liberation of everyone.
NO: I feel that Black women got out very early and made it clear to then candidate Biden that our votes weren’t for free. Now that he’s in office, what are your thoughts around the current administration delivering on their promises to disenfranchised groups? And do you feel they are making tangible steps to move towards equity?
MW: I feel like they are making some good steps towards making that change and building back trust in the Black community and I appreciate them for that. And we are only a month in, so who knows what the future may hold. But I still would like to see more. I would like to see more tangibles. I would like to see it go a little bit further, so to speak. But I feel like we’re off to a good start. And I feel like the work that they have already done could create a specific pathway to more substantial change. I don’t think it should end here.
NO: Running for office has become a numbers game and many argue that the reason there’s been little diversity among elected officials is because of large scale donations and connections to affluence and wealth. How will you run your campaign without the donations of large-scale donors or PACS? Do you feel that gives you more freedom as a candidate?
MW: It absolutely gives me more freedom as a candidate to not take those large contributions from corporations. Because as we see, my Rep. Steny Hoyer, we see that it’s precedented how the large dollar donations, they make you beholden to those entities instead of being beholden to everyday, working class people. The 99 percent, not the one percent. So it’s important for us to only accept contributions from regular working class people because those are the only people that we want to be beholden to. Those are the people that matter.
When we look at campaign contributions and taking that big money and you see the reluctance to actually pass meaningful policy that puts people first. For instance Steny Hoyer takes massive amounts from the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry and is reluctant to support Medicare for all or to even put it on the floor for a vote. And people used to talk about Mitch McConnell’s graveyard, but what about Steny Hoyer’s graveyard of progressive policy that still hasn’t made it to the floor for a vote? And what about the fact that he takes massive amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry, but refuses to support a grand new deal. We see how he takes massive amounts of money from police unions and doesn’t pass any kind of meaningful policy as it pertains to the Black community and criminal justice reform and police accountability.
NO: With the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, much like last year, it presented its own set of challenges in running a campaign. Now that we’re a year into this, can you share some of the ways your campaign intends to get the word out to your constituents?
MW: Our campaign is not new to having to adapt to circumstances. In fact our campaign started off 100 percent virtual. For us it’s just going back to our roots and how we began. But we definitely plan on holding virtual town halls, having as many virtual events that we can have to have community conversations. To be able to do that safely. And then also having to fundraise to get the word out to people, as many people as we can.