Interview: Stephen McDow II, co-operator standing for Democrats in Maryland 6

How can I take everything that I’ve learned about co-ops and try to embody that and execute change in the world?

What drives someone to be a politician? Stephen Reginald McDow II, running as a Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland District 6, says for him “it’s about service to people … and a burning desire to help improve my commuånity”. 

Co-operatives are integral to this, says McDow.  He previously worked for the US co-op sector apex NCBA-CLUSA, attracted by the “mix of the fight for equity and the co-operative movement”, and in 2019, moved to the Keystone Development Center to head up its membership, outreach and education activity for groups wanting to organise as co-ops. That year he also visited the UK and shared his experience at Co-operatives UK’s annual Retail Conference.

The  decision to stand for Congress followed some serious soul-searching, he says. “I asked myself: ‘How can I serve my community and make a big impact? How can I take everything that I’ve learned about co-ops and try to embody that and execute change in the world?’”

At that time, David John Trone – incumbent representative for Maryland’s 6th Congressional district – was just wrapping up the midterms. 

“I said, ‘Well, after this term, if he decides to seek a higher office, I’ll put my name in the hat’.”

And seek a higher office he did: Trone is standing for the US Senate, after Maryland senator Ben Cardin opted to retire, leaving the Maryland 6 Congress seat open. 

The primaries – when voters choose their party’s candidate – are on 14 May 2024, with Congress elections following on 5 November 2024, alongside the presidential election. 

“I started thinking about what things I can rally people around, because I feel like we’re at a crossroads,” says McDow. “At the moment, we are caught in what I call ‘the politics of resentment and jealousy’. People are talking at each other, not with and to each other. Everything seems to be linear and not collaborative. Injustice and inequality are spreading. And we’re all pointing fingers, but none of us are really looking for common knowledge, modality, commonality or intersectionality. 

“In terms of solving this – and of course, being influenced by the co-operative community – I’ve been thinking: ‘Well, you know what, let’s talk about collaboration. Let’s talk about the co-operative principles and about a way we can build a circular economy.’”

The circular economy forms one of six missions in McDow’s campaign, alongside mental health; innovation, science and technology; entrepreneurship; apprenticeships and trades; and agriculture. All of these missions have a co-operative answer, he insists.

“In terms of mental health, wouldn’t it be great to have a place where individuals could come as members to share housing, grow food, receive counselling, and receive education or training? And what if we had that kind of integrated approach for veterans and those who are homeless? In terms of innovation, science and technology, rural broadband access would benefit hugely from electric co-ops.

“In agriculture, we’ll be looking at developing a co-operative hub where folks can purchase together and also scale and then receive training for innovative agribusiness strategies, and for borrowing, exploring low-cost capital through credit unions.

“People need options, and at every level, we’re going to look to insert co-operatives as a viable, sustainable, sensible option.”

Although they will be a key part of his campaign, McDow acknowledges the challenge of the lack of awareness around co-ops. 

“In some ways, people don’t understand what co-ops are. So there will be a considerable amount of education that will have to happen from advocates on the ground, and we’ll be doing that simultaneously. But for every mission, we will have co-operatives as an answer.”

McDow is running as a Blue Dog Democrat. “Historically the Blue Dogs were the more conservative members of the Democratic Party that were left over from the old Dixiecrats,” he explains. “Then it became those who were fiscally conservative and more socially progressive. Today I see it as an effort to be smart and pragmatic.”

But his political affiliation isn’t everything: “[This campaign] isn’t about what I am, it’s who I am: a person that wants to serve people and solve real problems. I chose Blue Dog because I want to be able to define it as a space to be fiscally responsible, be smart with what we have and where billionaires pay their fair share of taxes. Our society works better when we all invest in our democracy.”

McDow and his team believe they have a genuine chance of winning. One local publication declared him a “qualified adult” running “a pragmatic, smart campaign”. 

Maryland 6 comprises all of Garrett, Allegany, Frederick, and Washington counties as well as a portion of Montgomery county – and, says McDow, includes the top 1% of earners, as well as the bottom 1%. Because of this, he believes the area “is poised to build an inclusive co-operative economy”.

For his Congress race, McDow will be working closely with the Ajani Group, created when he and a group of colleagues noticed a disconnect between leaders of some organisations and the needs of the people they served.  

“After I left Keystone, a group of us got together and started talking about some of the challenges we’ve experienced in the co-operative community. We asked, ‘What if we had an organisation that actually represented and looked like some of the communities that we want to work with – in particular, black and brown communities?’

“We noticed complications in how some leaders communicated or interacted with people who were Native American, Black or Latino. We wanted to create an organisation that’s truly reflective of our wider community.”

Ajani is now an accelerator organised as a worker co-op with six members, including McDow. It aims to strengthen and empower communities – particularly Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour (Bipoc) and disinvested communities – by supporting the development of co-operatives and small businesses.

‘Ajani’ means ‘He who wins the struggle’ in Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa, primarily in Southwestern and Central Nigeria. “We thought that was a great aspirational name,” says McDow. When he announced his Congress campaign, Ajani came on board as an advisor, “to help us craft policy and legislation that involves co-operatives at every level”.

He adds: “African Americans make up 15% of the whole district, and at the same time, there’s lots of families – including mine – that are blended, diverse interracial families.

“One of the things I will do is speak my truth and stay true to who I am: a person who loves to serve people, who believes in small business, and who knows that every person deserves dignity and the opportunity to pursue happiness and success in this country, regardless of their background, gender, orientation or upbringing.”

To make change, he argues, you have to listen. “One of the most important conversations you can have with someone is to ask them this: ‘What keeps you up at night, and how I can help you sleep better?’”