- Interview by
- Irene Koo
In late April, Maryland voters will have the opportunity to nominate a progressive, working-class champion and democratic socialist to Congress. Twenty-nine-year-old Mckayla Wilkes, inspired and emboldened by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over longtime incumbent Joe Crowley, announced in March 2019 that she would be mounting a primary challenge against the second most powerful Democrat elected official in the country.
House majority leader Steny Hoyer is currently serving his twentieth term as representative for Maryland’s 5th district, and the contrast between the two candidates could not be more absolute. As someone who was put in juvenile detention and was incarcerated as an adult because she could not afford cash bail, Wilkes has felt the punishing impact of Hoyer’s policies firsthand. Hoyer boasts a conservative legislative record — with votes for the Iraq War, multiple crime bills, and Wall Street deregulation — and has received millions in donations from the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, and defense industries.
Although Wilkes does not have the traditional background or credentials of the typical congressional candidate, she emphasizes that Hoyer and the Democratic establishment writ large have, for decades, failed to address the needs of working communities and people of color and fight for needed change. In giving voice to the crises of homelessness, lack of affordable health care, dearth of good-paying jobs, and a broken criminal justice system in her candidacy, Wilkes is running not only to represent her community but also to give people a reason to trust in the political process.
Wilkes is running on a progressive platform including issues such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, housing as a human right, campaign finance reform, and marijuana legalization. She recently spoke with editor Irene Koo to discuss democratic socialist values, the importance of bringing marginalized and disaffected voters into the electoral process, and the critical role of grassroots movements in the central fight of our time — people versus money and corporate power.
You are running as a first-time candidate for US Congress in Maryland’s 5th District. How did you decide to run for office?
I was not politically engaged at all. I was someone who did not trust the political process or realize how policy affects our everyday lives. A huge part of my deciding to become involved in politics was Bernie Sanders, because he was the first politician I had ever heard speak about issues that pertained to my community: universal health coverage, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage.
I didn’t have the typical background a politician would. I have been previously incarcerated. I didn’t have a degree. I didn’t have political connections, and I hadn’t worked in politics for years in the way that so many politicians have today. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy showed me that regular people could run for office, that we can fight on these issues, and that we can win on these issues. That’s when I decided to put my name on the ballot in 2019.
In recent years, we have seen dozens of young socialist working-class candidates mobilizing new constituencies and winning elections across the country. That includes Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, but also Rashida Tlaib, Julia Salazar, Kshama Sawant, the six candidates who are now on the Chicago City Council, and Dels. Gabriel Acevero and Vaughn Stewart in your home state of Maryland.
How would you describe the role of electoral politics in this broader struggle to build working-class power?
This is only the beginning of grassroots movements becoming a part of left politics. We absolutely can make our politics better by electing regular people who are going to fight for the issues that are most important. Electing people we can trust will make the process better for people who were like me in the past and didn’t trust in the process. People want to see people in office who they can relate to, people in office who are speaking to the issues directly in their community, and, most importantly, people who refuse to take corporate money and are not beholden to corporate interests.
You describe yourself as a proud democratic socialist. Could you elaborate on what democratic socialism means to you?
For me, democratic socialism is fighting for regular working-class people. It means showing that the government can work for us the way that it’s intended to and not for corporations in the way that it has been. It’s about ensuring that all of these policies that we’re fighting for — affordable housing, criminal justice reform, health care, environmental issues, education issues — all of these issues have to be treated as though they’re interconnected, and all issues have to be centered around the people that are affected by them.
Democratic socialism is ensuring that we have a government that treats health care as a human right, that treats housing as a human right, that has a fair criminal justice system based on rehabilitation and restorative justice. It means our freedom doesn’t depend on if we can pay for it, if we’re impoverished, if we’re suffering from substance abuse addiction, or if we’re suffering from mental health issues. It’s all about creating a government that puts people first, instead of corporations and profits.
Your race is a tough uphill battle. Rep. Steny Hoyer is currently serving his twentieth term, and he won his last primary in 2018 with 83 percent of the vote. This cycle, he’s raised a whopping $2.3 million in total contributions and has nearly $1.5 million cash on hand, most of which comes from the pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, and defense industries; less than 1 percent is from small contributions.
These numbers are indicative of exactly the problems you mention in your platform: the outsize influence of corporations and wealthy interests on our political process. But for voters in your district who see these types of numbers, or even for other potential progressive candidates who might want to run a primary challenge of their own, these numbers can certainly seem insurmountable.
What is your case for why they should try? How do we beat this level of overwhelming corporate power?
We cannot be intimidated by the numbers or the amount of money that incumbents like Steny Hoyer pull in. He has a lot of money, and most of that money does come from corporations. But when you’re running a grassroots campaign like ours, most of our money comes from people. We’re creating a movement; we have people behind us. And it’s also important to point out that no primary challenger of Steny Hoyer has ever raised more than $6,145 since 1990, while our campaign has raised over $150,000 — and we’ve outraised Hoyer in small-dollar donations four to one.
In races like ours, when you’re running a grassroots campaign, it’s always going to be a race of people vs. money. And as long as you have the people, then you absolutely have the tools to win.
Tell us about your team’s overarching strategy for reaching voters.
Our strategy is to basically talk to as many people as we can, because the data show that if we talk to enough people, we win. We do a lot of outreach online, but we’re also out in the community, because that’s what matters the most — actually going out and talking to the people who we want to represent.
I’m speaking to people who may not vote often or may not vote at all and reaching out to those communities that are politically disconnected because they don’t trust in the political process, or they feel as though their vote doesn’t count because they haven’t seen change for years. That has been one of my favorite strategies of this campaign — having those face-to-face connections with as many people as possible — because I was someone who was politically disconnected. And I wish that I had had a representative who came and knocked on my door or showed up at my local grocery store to talk to me.
We have roughly two hundred volunteers — people of all demographics and backgrounds, people of all ages. One of the things that we’re focusing on with this campaign is movement politics. That means taking it beyond just running a campaign, but actually organizing throughout the district and creating the blueprint to stand up together against the establishment.
How have Steny Hoyer’s policies directly affected you, a lifelong Maryland resident?
Steny Hoyer has signed onto each and every crime bill that has ever been written. He’s also referred to marijuana as a gateway drug, failing to take steps toward ending the war on drugs that disproportionately affects minorities. Being someone who was arrested for possession of marijuana eight years ago, I was directly impacted in that way.
He’s also refused to support policies such as Medicare for All to ensure that we all have adequate health care and treat health care as a human right. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had a high-risk pregnancy and was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis. I had a blood clot in each knee and one in my lungs. I had to be hospitalized for two weeks in order for the doctors to give me the medicine that I needed, because my insurance company at the time didn’t want to pay for it — even though not paying for it meant that I would die, and that my child who was inside of me would have died as well.
We should also talk about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which Hoyer only recently supported after we started our campaign. I was incarcerated for driving on a suspended license because I couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets, and that essentially came from me not being able to find a job that paid a livable wage. While I was working minimum wage job to minimum wage job, this made it very difficult for me to decide, am I going to pay for this court fine or am I going to put food on the table? Am I going to pay for this traffic ticket, or am I going to pay my light bill for the month?
For people who are in these situations — which is a lot of people, not just in my district but throughout the entire country — they have to differentiate and choose between what they can and can’t afford because we don’t have any jobs that pay a livable wage.
I have a very close friend of mine who has been homeless for the past ten years. She’s forced to live in poverty because she receives disability. If you are only making $700 a month from disability, and the median rent in our district is about $,1500 — that is an issue. That’s just one example of why I think all of these issues are interconnected. You can’t talk about one without talking about the other. Steny Hoyer has had the chance, the opportunity, to create legislation to help people who are in these situations and facing these issues in our community — and he hasn’t.
This speaks to a growing tension that’s playing out over and over at the local, state, and national level, where we’re seeing an “establishment” wing of the Democratic Party that’s content with maintaining the status quo, while more progressive candidates are saying, “No, we have to demand better. We have to win things like the Green New Deal and a living wage and Medicare for All.” How do you feel that you’ve been affected by that dynamic in this race, as a progressive challenger to a centrist Democrat?
I haven’t felt discouraged, and I feel that it’s actually empowered me and sparked a fire in me. These are people who are supposed to represent us. When you choose to not represent the people in your community and you represent corporations, that is a disservice to everyone in your constituency. And that’s one of the biggest reasons why I want to push for campaign finance reform. If we don’t allow these corporations to dump money into our politics, then our politicians can no longer be bought.
I was interested in the fact that, on your issues page, you discuss universal basic income (UBI) as a way of addressing economic insecurity, citing the Alaska Permanent Fund and the social wealth funds in Norway. Talk about why you included UBI in your platform.
Universal basic income is a huge part of addressing poverty on top of also creating jobs within our community. UBI would give us that extra leg up that we need for groceries, childcare, and educational expenses. And that’s why, even though I endorsed Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, I really appreciated Andrew Yang for bringing that conversation to the stage.
It’s great for people who don’t work. You have stay-at-home moms, you have people who do other work on the side, commissioned work, or unpaid work, where that extra one hundred or one thousand dollars would definitely help them out. I know it would have helped me out, and it would help a lot of people who are out of work in similar situations who have to choose, “Am I going to pay for this or am I going to pay for that?”
You’ve also highlighted in your policy platform that Maryland, as a state with the highest coastline-to-area ratio in the country, has already felt and will continue to suffer acutely from the effects of climate change. Climate change is a global concern, inextricably tied to immigration, US militarism, and racial justice. How do your climate proposals and the Green New Deal address these issues?
We actually have a part in our platform called the Teeming Shore Promise, which includes immigrants and reshaping the definition of what it means to be a refugee to include those who are affected by climate change. Because those who contribute the least to climate change are the ones who most feel the brunt of the effects of climate change. Under the Teeming Shore Promise, we are going to take in an unlimited number of climate refugees who have been displaced while also helping out other areas of the world to become more resilient against climate change.
Because it’s not the case that people want to leave their homes, where they’ve spent all of their lives. But if they don’t have the tools or infrastructure to withstand any type of natural disaster, we should absolutely be taking them in and helping them build that infrastructure and resiliency to handle the effects that climate change may cause.
Maryland Del. Vaughn Stewart has been a strong proponent of social housing. On a national scale, Sen. Sanders, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ilhan Omar have also advocated for a homes guarantee, ending homelessness and framing housing as a human right. How would you describe your housing plan in both a district-wide and national context?
I support the homes guarantee, which is basically a combination of national rent control and investing in public housing. Under our plan, we plan to provide federal funds to local municipalities and counties to build twelve million public social housing units throughout the entire country and provide credible incentives for those local municipalities and counties to lift building restrictions so that their towns can be built. The reason why this plan has to support affordable housing units across the entire country is because we see in Maryland, in our district outside of Washington, DC, that places are being gentrified and people are being pushed out of the area. We want people to be able to afford to live where they’ve been living their whole lives and not have to move because they can no longer afford it.
Another plan that we have is called “universal housing,” which includes fully funding the Section 8 program. Right now, under Section 8, the issue is not that people aren’t eligible. The issue with the program is that it isn’t fully funded, so there aren’t enough vouchers to go around to everyone. Under our plan, every person who is eligible for Section 8 will receive a voucher and will receive housing — and that includes undocumented people as well. And that is something that, in combination with the homes guarantee, will essentially end homelessness.
Could you also speak to some of the specific parts of your criminal justice reform platform and your stances on decriminalization?
Part of my criminal justice reform platform is to end cash bail, because we see a lot of people who are incarcerated who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. They just can’t afford to get out. It isn’t right that our freedom is dependent on whether we can afford it or not. Rich people can afford to pay their way out of jail, while we have other people who are living in poverty who are stuck in prison.
Another key issue is ending the war on drugs that has disproportionately affected black and brown people. And we need to decriminalize the usage of all drugs. There was one instance when I was in court and a woman was there for her fifth time for the possession of heroin, and the judge sentenced her to jail. To me, that was completely absurd, because putting someone in prison or jail because they’re suffering from a substance abuse issue is counterproductive — what they need is treatment. As I’ve said before, we need a criminal justice system that’s focused on restorative justice and rehabilitation, not incarceration and exploitation.
We must also abolish the for-profit prison system, because we shouldn’t be profiting off of people who are incarcerated, as well as end free prison labor. If you are in prison and you are working, the minimum wage of $15 an hour should be extended to you as well. We should not have a loophole for slavery in the 13th Amendment for those who are incarcerated. It’s just not right.
As someone who is also in my twenties, I often think about the fact that one in five people in our generation lives in poverty. We have, on average, 300 percent more student debt than our parents; we’re half as likely to own a home as people our age were in 1975. We came of age during the Iraq War, felt the shocks of the Great Recession, and are now facing down the prospect of climate catastrophe. Would you say that your age, that being a millennial confronting these challenges and anxieties, has shaped your views on certain issues?
Absolutely it has. I resonate with all of that, because these issues are problems that strongly affect younger generations. For instance, with schooling and college — I go to community college, and I’m in debt. We should absolutely be offering debt-free college as well as tuition-free colleges and trade schools as well.
What would you say are your top three legislative priorities?
My top three issues would definitely be Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and campaign finance reform. We can fight for all of these issues, but as long as we allow corporate money to be in our politics, it just makes it that much harder for us to pass any of this legislation.
You’ve been really candid about your experiences within the juvenile and criminal justice system. You’ve spoken freely about the fact that you have had an abortion. You’re a proud working-class single mother and a woman of color. These are realities felt by so many people in this country, but they’re also identities and experiences that can, for a number of reasons, invite condescension — particularly from those who traditionally occupy the halls of power.
As a candidate — as someone in the public eye facing intense scrutiny — why did you feel it was so important not just to be forthcoming about these personal experiences, but to also make them a meaningful feature of your candidacy?
Because these are issues that resonate with everyone. I’m not alone. And I felt the same way at first — that was part of my struggle to decide to get involved in politics. Before, I felt like I had to wait because my experiences are so stigmatized. But I decided to speak out about them, to break the stigma, because these are things that have happened to everyone in our community. It’s normal.
But it shouldn’t be normal — being incarcerated as a teenager or a child because you’re suffering from mental health issues. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed after my aunt died, and I was incarcerated as a child for skipping school and for running away from home, when I really just needed someone to talk to. These are issues that absolutely need to be spoken about.
I don’t even think of myself as a politician. I think of myself as an activist who just wants to be a voice for my community because so many of us have been through this. I wanted to lead with my story because my story isn’t just my story, it’s everyone’s story. It’s our story.
Any final thoughts?
This is bigger than any of our races. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of us running across the entire country. And yes, we’re running in different districts, but we are all fighting the same race. We’re all fighting the race of people vs. money.
But it’s also so much bigger than that. This is an entire movement, and we all need to stand together. That’s what we’re doing here in Maryland. We sparked a fire, we started the conversation, and we’ve opened this whole narrative that our district has never had before. I just can’t stress how much it means to us to have the people behind us, because we, as grassroots candidates, cannot do it alone. We absolutely need regular working-class people in our corner fighting with us.