NORTH BETHESDA — Chelsea Manning is no longer living as a transgender woman in a male military prison, serving the lengthiest sentence ever for revealing U.S. government secrets. She’s free to grow out her hair, travel the world, and spend time with whomever she likes.
But a year since former President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence, America’s most famous convicted leaker isn’t taking an extended vacation. Far from it: The Oklahoma native has decided to make an unlikely bid for the U.S. Senate in her adopted state of Maryland.
Manning, 30, filed to run in January and has been registered to vote in Maryland since August. She lives in North Bethesda, not far from where she stayed with an aunt while awaiting trial. Her aim is to unseat Sen. Ben Cardin, a 74-year-old Maryland Democrat who is seeking his third Senate term and previously served 10 terms in the U.S. House.
Manning, who also has become an internationally recognized transgender activist, said she’s motivated by a desire to fight what she sees as a shadowy surveillance state and a rising tide of nightmarish repression.
“The rise of authoritarianism is encroaching in every aspect of life, whether it’s government or corporate or technological,” Manning told The Associated Press during an interview at her home in an upscale apartment tower. On the walls of her barely furnished living room hang Obama’s commutation order, and photos of U.S. anarchist Emma Goldman and British playwright Oscar Wilde.
Manning’s longshot campaign for the June 26 primary would appear to be one of the more unorthodox U.S. Senate bids in recent memory, and the candidate is operating well outside the party’s playbook. She says she doesn’t, in fact, even consider herself a Democrat, but is motivated by a desire to shake up establishment Democrats who are “caving in” to President Donald Trump’s administration. She vows she won’t run as an independent if her primary bid fails.
She’s certainly got an eye-catching platform: Close prisons and free inmates; eliminate national borders; restructure the criminal justice system; provide universal health care and basic income. The top of her agenda? Abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency created in 2003 that Manning asserts is preparing for an “ethnic cleansing.”
Manning ticks off life experiences she believes would make her an effective senator: a stint being homeless in Chicago, her wartime experiences as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Iraq — even her seven years in prison. She asserts she’s got a “bigger vision” than establishment politicians.
But political analysts suspect the convicted felon is not running to win.
“Manning is running as a protest candidate, which has a long lineage in American history, to shine light on American empire,” said Daniel Schlozman, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. “That’s a very different goal, with a very different campaign, than if she wanted to beat Ben Cardin.”
Manning’s insurgent candidacy thus far has been a decidedly stripped-down affair, with few appearances and a campaign website that just went up. In recent days, she approached an anti-fracking rally in Baltimore almost furtively, keeping to herself for much of the demonstration. But when it was her turn to address the small group, her celebrity status was evident. People who never met her called her by her first name and eagerly took photos.
Manning has acknowledged leaking more than 700,000 military and State Department documents to anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks in 2010. She said her motivation was a desire to spark debate about U.S. foreign policy, and she has been portrayed as both a hero and a traitor.
Known as Bradley Manning at the time of her arrest, she came out as transgender after her 2013 court-martial. She was barred from growing her hair long in prison, and was approved for hormone therapy only after litigation. She spent long stints in solitary confinement, and twice tried to kill herself.
The Pentagon, which has repeatedly declined to discuss Manning’s treatment in military prison, is also staying mum about her political ambitions. Democratic Party officials say they have no comment, citing a policy not to weigh in on primaries. Republican operatives are quiet.
In Maryland, a blue state that’s home to tens of thousands of federal employees and defense contractors, it appears Manning’s main supporters are independents or anti-politics, making them unlikely to coalesce politically. She recently reported contributions of $72,000 on this year’s first quarterly finance statement, compared with Cardin’s $336,000.
The candidate has barely made an effort at tapping sources of grassroots enthusiasm outside of activism circles. And it’s easy to find progressive Democrats who feel her candidacy is just a vehicle to boost her profile.
“It feels to me almost like it’s part of a book tour — that this is her moment after being released from prison,” said Dana Beyer, a transgender woman who leads the Gender Rights Maryland nonprofit and is a Democratic candidate for state senate. “I don’t think this is a serious effort.”
Manning is indeed working on a book about her dramatic life. For now, she says she supports herself with income from speaking engagements. She’s spoken at various U.S. colleges and is due to take the stage at a Montreal conference later this month.
Last week, she appeared at a tech conference in Germany’s capital of Berlin, arriving to cheers from the audience of several thousand people. She told attendees she’s still struggling to adjust to life after prison and hasn’t gotten used to her celebrity status yet.
“There’s been a kind of cult of personality that is really intimidating and that is overwhelming for me,” she said in Berlin.
At her Maryland apartment, Manning told the AP she occasionally wakes up panicked that she’s back in the cage in Kuwait where she was first jailed, or incarcerated at the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, where a U.N. official concluded she’d been subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” She works hard to overcome anxiety, centering herself with yoga, breathing exercises, and reading.
“I’ve been out for almost a year now and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me just how deep the wounds are,” she said in her Spartan living room.
Asked how she would define success, Manning responded with passionate intensity: “Success for me is survival.”