WALDORF, Maryland — About six months after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat a powerful House Democrat, Mckayla Wilkes, a 28-year-old student living in Maryland, googled “What do you need to run for Congress?”
“How old do you have to be?” she asked the all-knowing search engine. “What do you have to do?”
A call to the State Board of Elections and $150 later, Wilkes was running for Congress, hoping to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s success and unseat one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. The mother of two is mounting a progressive primary challenge to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, arguing the 20-term member of Congress doesn’t represent working people in his district.
“He’s not for people that are my family, my friends, my coworkers,” Wilkes said over dinner in Waldorf, Maryland, about 45 minutes outside of Washington, DC, on Sunday. “It shows in the policies that he sponsors and that he endorses, and it shows in the donors that he gets his contributions from.”
In statement shared with BuzzFeed News, Hoyer campaign spokesperson Annaliese Davis said, “It is Congressman Hoyer’s policy to accept legal contributions and to pursue the policies he believes are in the best interests of our country and his district irrespective of such contributions.”
Wilkes, who declared in February and whose campaign will officially kick off this weekend, has a lot in common with Ocasio-Cortez, the woman who inspired her to run. She’s also a young woman of color trying to defeat an older white man who has spent more than three decades in Congress. She’s running on a platform of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — two progressive priorities that Hoyer has declined to support. Wilkes also supports impeaching President Donald Trump, while Hoyer and the rest of the House Democratic leadership have declined to go that far.
“The thing is, I’ve always wanted to pass legislation and help those like myself who are going through these things, but what really emboldened me was AOC running, and seeing that if someone like her can get into Congress, then someone like me can get into Congress,” Wilkes said.
But Wilkes faces some unique challenges. The effort to recreate Ocasio-Cortez’s success will likely be more difficult in Maryland’s 5th District, in part because the population is 60% white. New York’s 14th, on the other hand, which Ocasio-Cortez now represents, is just 18% white. But Wilkes could get a boost from the fact that it’s a presidential election year, which historically turns out younger, more diverse voters.
And Hoyer has had primary challengers before, defeating recent candidates by 60 points or more. “Mr. Hoyer enjoys wide and deep support in the district, and he continually meets with constituents across the district to hear directly from them about the issues they care about. That includes affordable health care, affordable housing, creating jobs, and combating climate change,” his spokesperson said.
But Wilkes is a different kind of candidate and hopes that her personal experience with the issues — from health care to criminal justice — will appeal to voters. She’s a rare candidate who talks openly about both her criminal record and the fact that she had an abortion.
Soon after declaring her candidacy, Wilkes revealed she spent time in jail, an acknowledgement that features prominently in an ad produced by her upstart campaign.
After her aunt was killed in the 9/11 attacks, Wilkes said she began skipping school and running away from home, which landed her in juvenile detention at age 15.
“They never found her body, they just declared her dead,” Wilkes said. “So if you can just imagine for, like, years, thinking that maybe your aunt is still out there somewhere … I started to act out maybe when I was about 13 or 14, which is when I started to realize that she wasn’t here anymore, because I was starting to hit milestones in my life. You know, your first period, your first boyfriend.”
In 2014, Wilkes was jailed for driving with a suspended license. She was 7 months pregnant and said she couldn’t afford to pay her tickets and couldn’t afford not to drive or she’d risk losing her job. She ended up spending two nights in jail.
“I just don’t want any secrets,” she said of going public about her record. “I want everything to be out there. It’s not like I’m the only person who goes through these things.”
She hopes to use that experience to overhaul the criminal justice system, including ending the war on drugs and reducing exorbitant fees for phone calls made from jail. “I major in political science, and my goal, which is still my goal, is to get my bachelor’s and go to law school and work for the state’s attorney’s office, to help people that are in my situation, to make sure that they’re not being exploited and not being criminalized for being impoverished,” Wilkes said. “People that are just not knowledgeable about the system just don’t understand.”
Wilkes has also been open about her abortion. She was 19 years old and 12 weeks along when she had the procedure nearly a decade ago.
“It’s not like it’s something easy to do,” she told BuzzFeed News on Sunday. “It’s not an easy decision to make. But I feel like women should have that right. … My body is not a political playground. There’s no room for [politicians] in the room with me and my doctor.”
Wilkes knows her background isn’t traditional for a congressional candidate, but she argues her personal experience with the issues gives her a needed perspective. Right now, she’s working as an administrative assistant at the Pentagon on a contract that will end Friday. If she doesn’t have a new job by the end of the month, she’ll be without insurance. She has high blood pressure, and she’s concerned she won’t be able to get her medication.
“It scares the crap out of me. What am I going to do? Is the Affordable Care Act going to help me?” she mused, picking at a garden salad.
“That’s also what sets me apart from Hoyer and also the majority of people in Congress,” Wilkes added, “because I would not be able to sleep at night knowing that I’m denying my sister health care or that I’m denying my friend a place to live or that I’m denying my classmate a place to live. So, for me, it’s personal.”
Wilkes said that, if elected, she wouldn’t support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pointing to the speaker’s refusal to support impeachment and her recent comment that a “glass of water” could have won Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the general election.
Wilkes, notably, isn’t the only challenger in the race. Civil rights lawyer and former teacher Briana Urbina has declared her own bid and is running on a platform nearly identical to Wilkes’s — prioritizing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, criminal justice, and affordable housing.
Urbina’s campaign will formally launch later this month. She told BuzzFeed News she quit her job to run for Congress and campaign full time, something she said makes her unique among the field of candidates.
But Wilkes stands to potentially lock down major endorsements early. Brand New Congress — one of the groups behind Ocasio-Cortez’s successful campaign and a number of other progressive challengers last year — confirmed it’s in talks with Wilkes. Though it hasn’t officially endorsed her, Zeynab Day, the group’s communications director, told BuzzFeed News in an interview that the group loves Wilkes’ story and sees her as a natural fit with their working-class slate of candidates.
“Mckayla’s a really interesting case because she’s gone through a lot of hardships,” Day said. “She’s lived the experiences of people in her district.”
Day said though Brand New Congress has gotten nominations for other candidates in the district, they have yet to talk to anyone else. Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, another progressive group that worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, also said they’ve talked to Wilkes, though Rojas told BuzzFeed News the group intends to talk to other candidates and potential candidates as well.
An endorsement from either group could give Wilkes the professional boost the campaign clearly needs. Currently, the campaign has no paid staff — just a growing group of volunteers — and Wilkes’ campaign manager, Dash Yeatts-Lonske, 21, is a campaign novice who’s still in school.
Wilkes also told BuzzFeed News the campaign has raised about $40,000 so far, while Hoyer raised $651,000 for his campaign in the first quarter of 2019, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports.
Wilkes wants to tell her story, she said, but she’s struggled to find vendors willing to work with her campaign after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced it would not work with any group that supports primary challengers.
When she began reaching out to consultants, looking to hire someone to do her FEC filings, Wilkes said she was told by multiple firms that they were “at capacity.” For its ads, the campaign says it’s turned to people who traditionally don’t do political work in an effort to get around the DCCC’s ban.
Wilkes said she’s already heard from voters who said they don’t want to give Hoyer the boot, at least in part because having their representative in leadership offers a rare kind of prestige. She said she’s also heard repeatedly from people who say she simply isn’t qualified for the job.
“I just say, I mean, I am qualified. I don’t think that someone should have to have a degree or a certain generic, so to say, background,” she said. “I feel like we need people in Congress that are relatable, people that are the working class, people that have been through things. I don’t have these beliefs because I turn on the news and say, ‘Oh, that’s bad,’ or I read a book, or I know statistics, you know? This is my life.” ●