Mckayla Wilkes, whose campaign was powered by UMD students, loses race for District 5 seat

Mckayla Wilkes, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Steny Hoyer in the Democratic primary, on March 1 in the Stamp Student Union. (Susannah Outhier/The Diamondback)

Mckayla Wilkes, a candidate for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District who received the backing of many University of Maryland students and alumni, lost to incumbent Steny Hoyer, according to voting tallies Wednesday morning. 

Wilkes, a political newcomer who embraced progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, finished second out of five candidates. She took 17 percent of the vote, among 57 percent of the voting precincts whose results have been recorded. Hoyer — the current House Majority Leader — received 74 percent of the vote. 

The election consisted almost entirely of vote-by-mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Hoyer, who has represented the 5th District for nearly 40 years, has received few serious primary challenges over his career. And Wilkes, who has never held political office, had little in the way of money, experience or reputation to boost her campaign. 

In a tweet posted Wednesday morning, Wilkes thanked her supporters.

“I am so, so grateful,” she wrote. “I never thought that someone formerly incarcerated like myself would even be taken seriously … I won’t ever stop fighting.”

[“This is the movement”: UMD community members gather at rally for Mckayla Wilkes]

Wilkes’ own background informed her platform. The 29-year-old mother of two has been arrested for marijuana possession and for driving with a suspended license, which motivated her to adopt progressive policies in an attempt to revamp the criminal justice system. Her time living on welfare benefits in the 5th District compelled her to search for solutions to increase funding for struggling communities.

Disillusioned by the health care and criminal justice systems, Wilkes found a connection between the policies that failed her and Hoyer, who has been her representative for most of her life. 

In a statement posted on his campaign’s Twitter page Wednesday, Hoyer recognized the effort put forward by Wilkes’ campaign and expressed gratitude for his supporters.

“Participation in our democracy is crucial, and anyone who puts in the work to run for office and advocate for their beliefs is to be commended,” he said in the statement.

Wilkes’ lived experiences make her unique, Vivien Zhu, the campaign’s social media director, told The Diamondback earlier this week.

“I don’t think anyone this normal, this regular has run for office before,” said Vivien Zhu, who graduated from this university in May. “She has had so much struggle and in spite of it all, she’s running for Congress against a 40-year incumbent.”

[“Like a big family”: UMD students are managing Mckayla Wilkes’ Congressional campaign]

Some of the policies Wilkes proposed have become increasingly relevant as protests surrounding police brutality grip the United States in response to the death of George Floyd. She is in favor of demilitarizing the police and prohibiting stop-and-frisk programs.

“Black people getting killed at higher rates than anybody by police is not a new issue,” rising senior and campaign volunteer Colleen Herrmann told The Diamondback earlier this week. “This is just another one of the issues that she’s been ahead of the game on.”

The campaign encountered obstacles as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as it prevented volunteers from canvassing door-to-door — something the grassroots campaign depended on to spread Wilkes’ platform.

However, Zhu says the young team was quick to adapt — when the campaign started, many of the student volunteers were studying abroad and coordinating remotely, making the young team equipped to deal with the abrupt changes. In response to the pandemic, the team started ramping up phone banking, encouraging supporters to help out.

Even so, it was a tough transition, Zhu said.

“We had been seeing a really big growth in our canvassing program and number of volunteers we had coming out every weekend and during the week to [knock] on doors, and the weather was just starting to get nice,” she said. “And it just stopped it in its tracks.”

Looking back on the campaign, volunteer Evan Yamaguchi wrote that while he and other members of the team are “very disappointed” at the result, Wilkes’ run was inspiring — and he hopes to continue to remain active in “local organizing efforts.”

“I’m definitely not alone in my belief that Mckayla was truly one of the most inspiring candidates I’ve seen run for office in my lifetime,” Yamaguchi, a rising senior physics major, wrote. “Community solidarity is essential to creating a better society[,] and I’m so glad that Mckayla has and will continue to contribute to that effort.”

This story has been updated.

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