Mckayla Wilkes has seen firsthand the pitfalls of the criminal justice system.
Throughout her childhood, Wilkes — now a candidate for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District — skipped school often, admitting she “was going down the wrong path in life.” At one point, she was put into a group home after serving 90 days in a juvenile detention facility for skipping school.
Wilkes was also arrested twice in the last six years for driving with a suspended license. In 2014, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy, she was jailed for a day and put into a system where she could only leave her cell for one hour a day. But it was through spending two days in prison in 2018 that she knew she needed to pursue a career in politics.
“It was at that moment that really opened up my eyes,” Wilkes said. “Every single woman that was there was there because they couldn’t afford to get out … These are systemic issues that need systemic solutions.”
On Sunday, about 35 people came out to support Wilkes at a rally in the University of Maryland’s Stamp Student Union, pushing her progressive agenda and helping voters register for the April 28 election.
Wilkes — who is attempting to unseat longtime District 5 representative and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer — says her policies align with those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). She supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, among other progressive policies.
“The fight for racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice — they all have to go together, or we will go nowhere,” said community volunteer and College Park resident Rachel Gregory. “Going nowhere means more and more climate refugees, more and more racial disparities, economic disparities, more and more injustice in the world.”
Wilkes has enlisted the help of students from this university for her grassroots campaign. The campaign has prioritized canvassing, and at Sunday’s rally, almost half of the attendees raised their hands when a speaker asked if they’d knocked doors for Wilkes before.
“The biggest obstacle to her winning is not enough people know about her yet,” said Gregory, who said she knocked on her 2,000th door this weekend. “This is the moment, this is the movement. It’s possible, and so I’m putting as much as I can into it.”
Several of the rally’s attendees voiced their displeasure with some of Hoyer’s decisions, including his investment in the fossil fuel industry and opposition to the Green New Deal.
“I was drawn to Mckayla because I detest Steny Hoyer,” said senior environmental science and policy major Blake Munshell, who has helped with the campaign since its inception early last year. “He has an atrocious record on pretty much everything.”
As of last August, a third of Wilkes’ staff was made up of students from this university — the most of any candidate in the race. Though she’s up against an establishment candidate, she said she’s been thrilled with the progress of her campaign — she’s garnered 35,000 Twitter followers and received endorsements from 10 political groups.
“It’s definitely empowering. It’s moving. And it’s just amazing,” Wilkes said. “It really shows me that regular people want change because it’s so much bigger than just this campaign. We started a movement.”
And even though she knows she may not win the election, Wilkes believes she has a career in politics — something she would not have even considered a few years ago.
“Worst case scenario,” she said, “I will be back in 2022.”