Thursday, June 11, 2015

Joseline Peña-Melnyk-- Passionate Progressive In Maryland


Donna Edwards, one of the sharpest and most effective progressive leaders in Washington, is leaving the House to run for the Senate seat left open by the retirement of Barbara Milulski. There's a danger that her district (MD-04-- Prince George's County and the area around Severna) will fall back into the hands of a corrupt conservative Establishment type, like Al Wynn, who represented it so badly before Donna primaried him and retired him to K Street. There are as many as a dozen candidates who have declared or are mulling over the race, including ex-Lt Governor Anthony Brown, who just ran a catastrophic campaign for governor and lost to a Republican in one of the bluest states in America; Glenn Ivy, who was twice AIPAC's unsuccessful primary candidate "to put Donna in her place"; Derrick Davis, a conservative state Delegate; and the most progressive candidate in the field-- endorsed by Blue America-- state Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk. 

There are a lot of reasons to back Joseline, and most of them are out front, clearly displayed in her record. We remember back in 2006, when we were struggling against the entire Democratic Establishment to help Donna win the congressional seat. Joseline was one of only two state legislators to jump in and campaign on Donna's behalf.

Last cycle we found an effective state legislator in California accomplishing amazing things, Ted Lieu, and helped him, in some small way, win a House seat. We get a similar vibe from Joseline. Her passion for progressive causes is an inseparable part of her character. As a child she emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. with her single mother, who worked in New York’s garment industry. There was a time when the family was on welfare, because her father wasn’t paying child support. But Joseline struggled to learn English and get ahead through a good education. She was an Equal Opportunity Program scholar and the first in her family to attend college. "When I look back on it now, I see how much I benefited from programs to open doors for minority students."

We spoke with Joseline this week, and she told us that for a long time she has made basic fairness for people on the margins of society her passion. One summer during law school she worked in Alabama with Bryan Stevenson to represent prisoners on Death Row. Another summer she was in Ohio farm country visiting migrant farm workers and fighting for basic living conditions, a safe work environment, and fair wages. When Joseline got her law degree she hung out a shingle and took court appointments to represent abused and neglected children, and to provide criminal defense for the poor. Later, she joined Eric Holder’s U.S. Attorney’s office and prosecuted crimes, building cases by working closely with police officers and the witnesses and victims in the community.

When she and her husband had a son and then twin girls, Joseline paused to be a mom. "But," she told us, "the call to stay involved in the community would not go away."  She served on the board of Casa de Maryland, a community social service organization focused on Latino immigrant issues, and she ran for, and won, a seat on the College Park City Council.

What followed was a key moment that established her political outlook. She ran a long-shot grassroots campaign for Maryland’s General Assembly. She challenged the political kingmakers and campaigned relentlessly with the help of dedicated volunteers and the modest contributions of ordinary people. And when she won, a marvelous thing happened. "I felt genuinely free (and responsible) to represent those same ordinary people in Annapolis and I felt free to vote my conscience and to disregard pressure put on me by the political establishment and party leadership."

Joseline's record since then shows that she's committed to making Maryland stronger, fairer, and more inclusive. She co-sponsored a bill to protect the transgender community by prohibiting discrimination based on "gender identity" in public accommodations, labor and employment, and housing (HB1265). As the "floor leader," she defended the bill from conservative challengers during a vigorous four-hour floor debate. She also supported the controversial gay marriage bill and was influential in convincing her legislative colleagues to support it too.

Joseline knows that working families need help. She co-sponsored legislation to increase the minimum wage, expand opportunities for minority businesses, broaden the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, crack down on mortgage fraud, and create state apprenticeship and workforce development programs in our secondary schools and community colleges.

Like Ted Lieu, she is known to roll up her sleeves and do the heavy lifting. Joseline and her staff have stepped in to help many families save their homes from foreclosure. She also was among very few legislators with the backbone to vote against casino gambling, because she felt strongly that Maryland should not impose the damaging social effects of problem gambling on our communities.

She has been a leader on health issues. Her legislation to digitize medical records in Maryland is improving health care delivery and lowering costs. And she has moved many bills into law dealing with women and children’s health, including bills on family planning, mammograms, childhood obesity and suicide prevention.

"The Baltimore riots," she told us, "illustrate the need to improve our criminal justice system and policing practices. And, in the larger context, the riots are a commentary on the need to create more paths to success for all our citizens." Joseline is one of ten Delegates on the Workgroup on Public Safety and Policing Practices established after the riots. But she has a strong record on these issues that predates the riots. Her bill made Maryland the first state to count inmates of state prisons in the place where they lived when arrested, which helps boost representation for the poor communities that have the most problems and the most incarcerated citizens. She co-sponsored repeal of the death penalty (HB 0295, 2013), and, to improve employment options for people with criminal convictions and reduce recidivism, she supported "ban the box" on state employment forms. And she has pushed for police accountability, including ending race-based traffic stops and promoting legislation for an independent state prosecutor to investigate law-enforcement-involved deaths.

She has supported public campaign financing to limit the corrosive effects of large contributions and constant fundraising on our democracy. She believes that a truly progressive agenda requires unity among African Americans and Hispanics, a demographic that is growing each year.
The fingers on my hand are all different, but they work together. There is no choice but for black and brown to work together to make America better. Hispanics are about 16% and African Americans are about 13% of the US population, and our numbers are growing each year. Divided, we will be ignored. But unified, engaged, registered to vote and activated, we cannot be stopped!
If you'd like to make sure Maryland voters replace Donna Edwards with another hard-working, dedicated progressive, please consider contributing to Joseline Peña-Melnyk's campaign here.

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