A contentious fight to elect the next Democratic speaker of Maryland’s House of Delegates ended in a historic compromise that places Del. Adrienne Jones at the helm of the chamber.
Jones, a 64-year-old veteran lawmaker from Baltimore County, is the first woman and the first African American to serve as House speaker in the state’s history.
The dramatic conclusion of a contest that elicited national attention began Wednesday afternoon when the state’s House Democratic Caucus voted 58-40 to nominate Baltimore City Del. Maggie McIntosh, a liberal, gay woman, over Del. Dereck Davis, a black moderate from Prince George’s County, for the top legislative post.
But soon after the vote, House Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke (R) announced that all 42 of the chamber’s Republicans would back Davis in a floor vote.
McIntosh knew she did not have the votes to win a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the House floor.
So, during a private House Democratic Caucus meeting after the caucus vote, McIntosh agreed to drop out, according to a lawmaker who was present. She instructed the caucus to stay in the room until they could back a candidate who could get the 71 votes needed for a majority on the House floor and suggested that the person be a woman from the Legislative Black Caucus.
We just could not accept the precedent of Republicans intervening in our process. Del. Ben Barnes (D)
Jones, who had also been a candidate for speaker until Monday when she dropped out and endorsed Davis, was the contender that the caucus found it could agree on.
With the chamber’s Democratic supermajority behind her, Jones won the speakership unanimously on the House floor.
Crucially for Democrats and allied groups nervous about Davis’ candidacy, Jones did not need Republican votes to win the speakership. The outcome averts a situation that critics feared would thwart the majority will and undermine liberal priorities by making the Democratic speaker indebted to the GOP minority.
“I’m happy we came together as a caucus and did not allow the Republicans to drive the narrative, drive a wedge between our party or dictate the outcome of our speaker,” said Del. Ben Barnes, a McIntosh ally and member of House leadership. “We just could not accept the precedent of Republicans intervening in our process.”
Jones served as speaker pro tem prior to Wednesday, which gave her the responsibility of presiding over the chamber in the speaker’s absence.
She is viewed by her colleagues as something of an ideological continuation of the late Michael Busch’s largely liberal but consensus-driven speakership. Busch’s death in April, after 16 years leading the House, sparked the leadership battle that allowed Jones to emerge victorious on Wednesday.
“She is a good middle ground between Chairman Davis and Chairman McIntosh,” said Del. Shelly Hettleman (D), a Baltimore County lawmaker who supported McIntosh.
Jones’ election caps off an acrimonious speaker race replete with intrigue that lawmakers likened to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “House of Cards.”
It highlighted a debate in some Democratic circles as to whether, all else being equal, ideology or racial representation should take precedence when deciding on a candidate for public office.
McIntosh enjoyed the support of the House caucus’ younger and more liberal members, including some African Americans, as well as the state’s influential labor unions and progressive advocacy groups.
But her claims to leadership came up against a frustrating reality: In a state where African Americans make up almost one-third of the population and even more of the legislature’s Democrats, precious few African Americans have held statewide political office.
The highest-ranking post held by an African American in Maryland’s history is lieutenant governor ― a position that arguably has less power than House speaker. The past two Democratic gubernatorial nominees have been African American, but both of them lost to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The historic nature of his bid won Davis the backing of a majority of the Legislative Black Caucus, as well as U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), the state’s former lieutenant governor.
Notwithstanding their generally more centrist leanings, his supporters cast themselves as insurgents fighting against the weight of the liberal party establishment.
Referring to the obstacles that all African Americans face when seeking elected office, Del. C.T. Wilson (D) said Tuesday he was not cowed by the threats he had endured because of his support for Davis.
“It’s laughable to me,” Wilson said. “We have always been willing to take those risks to get to the next level.”
At one point in the contest, however, efforts to rally black support behind Davis reportedly took an ugly turn. On Monday, Del. Regina Boyce (D), a McIntosh supporter, announced her resignation from the Legislative Black Caucus on the grounds that weeks earlier, Legislative Black Caucus Chair Del. Darryl Barnes (D) warned the caucus that by electing McIntosh, “We are going to let a white lesbian be the speaker of the House.” Barnes denied making the comment, but at least two other black lawmakers who were present corroborated Boyce’s account.
Jones’ victory seemed to provide some satisfaction to all sides with even McIntosh allies noting the historic importance of her ascent.
“Someone pointed out from the House floor, looking around at all the white men looking down at us [in picture frames] from the walls, that that would no longer be the case,” Hettleman said. “That’s a really important thing.”
Still, Hettleman is concerned about the precedent of a Democratic lawmaker using even the threat of defying the wishes of the Democratic caucus to force a particular outcome. Currently, the caucus has a rule that members must honor the majority of the caucus’ leadership preference, but it is not enforceable.
“Perhaps we should enforce the rule so we don’t get into this jam in the future,” she said.
This story has been updated with more details and background information.