Former House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the chamber’s senior Democrat, is getting a primary challenge, TYT has learned, from two-time candidate Mckayla Wilkes.
In an exclusive interview with TYT, Wilkes said she’s running as a progressive in the Democratic primary for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District to unseat Hoyer after more than 40 years in office.
Wilkes, a Black woman who also identifies as a lesbian, is an activist who works as a contractor for the Department of Veterans Affairs and previously ran against Hoyer in 2020 and 2022. She says she rejects corporate money and would vote against establishment Democrats for House leadership positions.
Hoyer has been in office since 1981 and had served in a leadership position in the House from 2003 until stepping down as majority leader last year. He has not yet said whether he will seek re-election.
Despite her progressive positions, Wilkes says she didn’t receive any support from any progressives in Congress, including members of “The Squad,” when she challenged Hoyer in past races.
Wilkes says that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) inspired her to enter politics. When she first entered the race against Hoyer during the 2020 election cycle she won 26.7% of the primary vote and 19% last year. But Hoyer refused to debate her.
This time, Wilkes believes that the odds are more in her favor thanks to Hoyer no longer holding a House leadership position and because of redistricting.
“We have a way more favorable district,” says Wilkes. Before this cycle, she says, the district map “skipped over majority Black communities [...] it skipped over the demographic of people who will be more likely to support someone like me, that has the same ideology as I do, that look like me.”
More than half of the new district is now people of color.
Wilkes says her priorities include housing, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, and Medicare for All, among other progressive initiatives. She says she’ll also work to promote her Black Agenda, which includes reparations and strengthening voting rights.
Wilkes says in past races Hoyer justified his refusal to debate her by saying that anyone wanting to know his stance on anything can “catch him at the grocery store.”
“I don't think he does his own grocery shopping,” Wilkes said.
This time, Wilkes is hoping to galvanize enough support from millennial and Gen Z voters to counter voters’ familiarity with Hoyer, which has helped to keep him in office for decades.
“[W]e want to reach out to those people and you know, to let them know that we have options,” says Wilkes. Hoyer, she said, “even said himself that he's basically just sticking around to be a mentor to you know, the newcomers and the people who are now in leadership. He doesn't need to be there to do that. They can call him or text them.”
Regarding Hoyer’s record, Wilkes says that he “votes in the correct way” when it comes to LGBTQIA+ issues, but that “everything else is questionable,” pointing to his handling of the eviction moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of holding a simple majority vote to extend the eviction moratorium, Hoyer, used unanimous consent, which meant a single "no" vote could stop it. The extension failed.
“He chose to be a coward and do that, instead of just taking a stance,” said Wilkes.
Wilkes also points to Hoyer’s lack of support for universal healthcare, his characterization of marijuana as a “gateway” drug, and what she calls his "unconscionable" support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as reasons why it’s time for a change.
“[M]y loyalty wants to reside with the people in the community. I'm not beholden to any corporations,” says Wilkes.
But despite her progressive agenda, Wilkes says she’s never been backed by members of “The Squad” or other congressional progressives.
“I have not [received support],” she says. “and nothing, you know, against anybody else, but it's really hard to get support from sitting people in Congress and or even just elected officials just because of who Hoyer is. But I hope that's something that we can change.”
The new district’s population is slightly over 50% Black and Brown, and Wilkes says it’s important for the communities she’s seeking to serve to have a representative who looks like them and understands their struggles.
“[W]e have had old white men in power for hundreds of years. And it is time for a change,” she says. “It's been time for a change – for people to represent us that look like us, that embody the struggles that come from our community, because only from that struggle, will you be able to advocate in the ways that we can speak about the way that policy affects us.”
To get the job done if she’s elected, Wilkes says she would rely on her roots as an organizer to gain support for her initiatives in the House, even if it means voting “no” to prove a point.
“I would organize to vote no, even if it doesn't make an impact, but it still sends a message that we are not going to tolerate that, you know, not voting for the establishment Democrat that they want to be the speaker of the House or any kind of leadership position,” she says.
“[I]ncrementalism is not working and that's what they [establishment Democrats] want us to do,” says Wilkes. “I think that it's important to also organize for policy, but it's also important to organize to say that we're not going to meet you in the middle. We've been meeting you in the middle. You need to meet us where we're at.”
If elected, Wilkes says, she wants to use her position to stand in solidarity with her community against extreme right-wing anti-trans legislation that has been adopted in other states, from taking hold in Maryland.
Wilkes will make her official campaign announcement Thursday morning.
TYT Washington Correspondent Candice Cole was previously a correspondent and senior White House producer for the Black News Channel and has worked at a number of local news outlets. You can find her on Twitter @CandiceColeNews.