Mckayla Wilkes readily admits that she was never one to trust the political process. It was that lack of trust, however, and her observation that there was no one representing her community speaking on the issues important to residents, that prompted her to run for office.
In fact, building trust in the community is foundational to her campaign strategy as she runs to represent Maryland’s 5th congressional district.
“Part of our focus in building our movement is actually engaging with people who more so don’t vote often, or people who don’t vote because they don’t trust in the political process. Because I was someone who was like that,” Wilkes explained to ESSENCE during a phone interview. “We’ve changed the narrative that’s happening in the district, and we’re actually going out and speaking with constituents.”
She pointed to the recent spate of town halls her campaign held back in January as an example of how she’s engaging the community and listening to their needs, as well as the enthusiasm she has received.
“Because for so long, so many people in our district, including myself, have felt as though we’re forgotten, and that we’ve been ignored by our current representation,” she said.
That current representation just happens to be one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a 20-term incumbent who currently serves as the House Majority Leader.
For Wilkes, running this race is personal. She sees herself reflected in the constituents she feels are not being represented and she wants to change that and give their issues a voice.
“Being someone who’s been directly impacted by policies, someone who is still directly impacted by policy, shows [voters] that they have someone who’s accessible to them, that I’m someone who cares, and that I share everyone’s lived experience in our district,” Wilkes said. “I know that we’re showing people in the district that they have a reason to vote, and that they have a reason to trust in our political process.
For The People, Of The People
Wilkes has a history that may be unique to your typical career politician in a suit, but not as unique to the growing progressive push across the nation, as younger candidates toss their hats into races and demand to be heard.
She was in and out of juvenile detention between the ages of 14 and 17 – as a result of acting out (skipping school and running away from home) following the horrific loss of her aunt, Sharon Carver, a crucial figure in her life, who was killed on 9/11 in the attack on the Pentagon. She continued to move through the criminal justice system well into her early adult years, so she knows first-hand the issues within the system.
She knows first-hand what it’s like not being able to pay for traffic tickets and having her license suspended, even though she needed to drive to get to work in order to pay off her tickets.
“I take this 100% personal,” Wilkes said. “This has nothing to do with politics as it pertains to me, because all of these issues not only directly impact me, but people in my community. And I see it every single day.”
And criminal justice is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Wilkes’ platform, as she tackles other progressive issues such as the Green New Deal, Medicare For All, policing, gun violence prevention, housing security, one policy outline called “The Black Agenda” and more.
“These issues are bigger than just individuals…there actually needed to be systemic change to prevent predatory practices that harm people in my community, people of color, people that are living in poverty, people that are suffering from substance abuse issues and mental health issues,” Wilkes said. “I specifically decided to mount a challenge to Steny Hoyer because this is someone who voted for every single crime bill that has ever been written that has contributed to our mass incarceration crisis, someone who does not want to federally legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs that is hurting people in my community, that directly impacted me. I was incarcerated for possession of marijuana.”
Wilkes is not at all intimidated by the thought of attempting to unseat someone who has served in Congress for almost four decades, nor is she unnerved thinking about how to encourage voters to get past the familiarity in voting for a lifetime politician who may seem more experienced—but, according to Wilkes, not experienced where it counts.
“What is that representative doing with that name recognition, or what has he been doing even though he’s been in office for almost 40 years? We’re in a safe blue district and people are still suffering. People are still homeless. People are working multiple jobs and are homeless. Kids are having to eat cheese sandwiches because they have student school lunch debt. People are still living in debt from going to school for college,” Wilkes said.
“And when you’re in a position of leadership for so long, the question has to be what have you done for us? And I always try to tell people, think about what you’re gaining by ‘losing’ that person who’s been in office for so long. You’re gaining someone who is actually going to listen. You’re gaining someone who is actually going to be accessible to you and come out into the community. You’re gaining someone who is going to look at your issues and take them on as your own,” she added.
Hoyer’s campaign reached out to ESSENCE, noting that the incumbent engages with his constituents and is directly working to resolve the issues important to them.
“Mr. Hoyer continually meets with individuals and families throughout the Fifth District to hear directly from them about the issues they care about and is working to address them. He is focused on ensuring universal access to affordable, quality health care; addressing the climate crisis; improving access to affordable housing; creating good-paying jobs in our communities, and improving our broken criminal justice system,” Annaliese Davis, a spokesperson for Hoyer’s campaign said in a statement.
Davis continued, “Mr. Hoyer supports the decriminalization and de-scheduling of marijuana and brought the SAFE Banking Act to the House Floor last year to make important progress on this issue. His seniority in the House of Representatives, legislative experience, and countless relationships throughout the state are strengths that make him uniquely able to both serve his constituents and stand up to the reckless and dangerous Trump Administration.”
The Future Is Progressive
What Wilkes is trying to do is no longer unprecedented, or as far-fetched as it may have seemed once upon a time. After all, she’s fondly regarded as “Maryland’s AOC” for a reason. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez famously won New York’s 14th congressional district in the Democratic primary election, ousting long-time incumbent Joe Crowley, who at the time served as Democratic Caucus Chair.
And there is also Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who defeated ten-term incumbent Mike Capuano in the primary election back in 2018.
“Here in Maryland, we have an entire delegation that is men. And with the exception of Congressman Elijah Cummings, may he rest in peace, our delegation is now all white men,” Wilkes said. “And so seeing people, especially women of color, especially Black women like Ayanna Pressley…seeing someone who looks like me, and seeing people who have lived a similar life, such as AOC who was a bartender before she became a congresswoman, that empowered me.”
Editor’s Note: Congressman Anthony G. Brown, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, represents Maryland’s 4th District in Maryland.
As her campaign grows, with the elections drawing ever closer, Wilkes has been focusing on getting her message across, but even that has proved to come with its frustrations. She has tried to debate Hoyer—a debate which the Washington Post agreed to moderate—but the congressman has declined to accept the invitation, she said.
Though Hoyer’s campaign does not deny that Wilkes’ personally or through her campaign extended Hoyer an invitation to debate, Davis claims that the campaign has not received a formal request for debate from “any third-party individual or organization.”
Wilkes still hopes that Hoyer will change his mind, however, because “the people in our district deserve it.”
“It just proves how I was feeling before I ran for office that people in my community did not matter, that people in my community were not heard and that people in my community didn’t have a voice because we have politicians that don’t care to come out into our community because he doesn’t want to face our community,” Wilkes said. “And I’ve come to see why he actually doesn’t want to debate us. He’s a coward in layman’s terms.”
According to Wilkes, it is her job as a candidate, and Hoyer’s job as a representative to give constituents the opportunity to fully participate in the democratic process and see where both she and Hoyer stand on the issue.
“[The people] deserve to hear questions asked, and they deserve to hear answers,” Wilkes added.
“We haven’t refused to debate, but…I’ve been in office 39 years. I was in the state Senate for 12 years. I’d be very surprised if my constituents do not know where I stand on the issues,” Hoyer told ESSENCE earlier this week at Rep. Maxine Waters’ Millennial Media Row. “As a candidate who wants to replace me, she ought to tell the public where she differs from me.
“The public knows where I am,” Hoyer continued. “I’ve probably voted thousands of times, so I’m not going to change that position. What any opponent has to do is differentiate themselves from myself. And she’s doing that and fully able to do that.”
Wilkes is absolutely doing just that—and she’s in it to win it. But, she tells ESSENCE, regardless of the outcome, this is not just about her winning the office, and even if she doesn’t make it past the primaries this time, that doesn’t mean her work will stop, or that she won’t run again.
“For me, it’s more so about a movement and continuing the narrative that we have started in our district. Whether we make it past the primaries or not, we’re still going to be in the community. I’m still going to advocate for these issues. I’m never going to stop,” she said.
“I believe that this campaign and this movement that we started is lighting a fire under the people in our district. And that fire is going to do nothing but grow and continue to burn.”