Maryland is one of the most strongly Democratic states in the country. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1 in the state, and while GOP Gov. Larry Hogan has sky-high popularity, the state’s legislature only got more Democratic in the 2018 elections. The party picked up eight seats in the House of Delegates, giving Democrats a massive 99-to-42 supermajority.
But progressives and unions in the state are now warning that Republicans may end up deciding who the next House speaker is, the result of an intra-Democratic clash pitting certain progressive ideological goals against a desire for more African American leadership in a state where over 30 percent of the population is black.
The speakership opened up because Speaker Michael Busch died in early April after helming the legislative chamber for 16 years.
The battle to succeed Busch pits Del. Maggie McIntosh, an openly gay white liberal from Baltimore and a former public school teacher, against Del. Dereck Davis, a more moderate black member from populous Prince George’s County in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Both are powerful members and committee chairs in the state legislature. McIntosh is widely expected to win a vote Wednesday in the Democratic caucus, but if Davis brings the vote to the state House floor, he could claim the speakership with the support of Republicans.
Davis’ opponents argue that Republican support would make him beholden to the GOP to maintain power in the future.
“If that Republican bloc is a majority of that person’s votes, what is that bloc going to be owed in the future?” asked Sean Johnson, the legislative and political director for the Maryland State Education Association. “That’s the nightmare scenario for moving a progressive agenda in the years to come.”
“Dereck not only gets results, but he does it in a collaborative and inclusive way.”
Some of the progressive bills that Democrats hope to advance include passing paid family leave benefits for all workers in the state and funding an ambitious school investment plan recommended by a state education commission.
Johnson warned that Republicans could make demands in the future to decrease Democratic political power. “You might have to promise them things in January 2021, ahead of redistricting, or in January 2022, ahead of the next governor’s race.”
Johnson’s union, along with a coalition of other progressive and labor groups, including the state chapters of NARAL and Our Revolution, plus a number of local Service Employees International Union chapters, signed a letter asking delegates to support whichever candidate wins the vote in the Democratic caucus. The letter doesn’t officially oppose or support either candidate, but Democrats in the state expect McIntosh to win a solid majority.
“Efforts to splinter the caucus will put the priorities of working families and our shared Maryland values at risk, which is why we believe it is so important that the Democratic Caucus speak with a unified voice,” the groups wrote.
The letter’s signatories note they will be watching the vote closely, implying the threat of possible primary challenges for members who vote against the caucus’ choice.
Given the historic nature of either McIntosh or a Davis’ speakership, the fight has at times taken on the charged tone of national debates about whether representation or ideology is most important. Davis would be the first black House leader in a state where lieutenant governor is the highest state office to be held by an African American.
Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.), a former black lieutenant governor, threw his support behind Davis on Tuesday.
“I’ve seen his leadership in action. Dereck not only gets results, but he does it in a collaborative and inclusive way,” Brown said in a statement.
Another African American contender for speaker, Del. Adrienne Jones, dropped her bid on Friday and endorsed Davis. But leaders of the Maryland House’s 45-person legislative black caucus have encouraged their members to rally behind Davis with only partial success; upwards of 15 black caucus members are backing McIntosh.
“That is the danger of this: They now have undue influence on good Democratic policies going forward.”
In at least one case, advocacy for Davis within the black caucus has allegedly veered into anti-gay bias. Del. Regina Boyce alleged on Monday that earlier this month, Chairman Darryl Barnes had warned the caucus that backing McIntosh would mean “We are going to let a white lesbian be the speaker of the House.”
Barnes denies the claim, but Dels. Robbyn Lewis and Joseline Peña Melnyk, black caucus members who were present, both corroborated Boyce’s account.
Judged on policy grounds, McIntosh has a more progressive record. She spearheaded efforts to pass legislation prohibiting a question about criminal histories on college applications, as well as a bill beefing up funding for alternatives to cash bail.
“She’s very supportive of issues that are important to my constituents, including constituents of color,” said a black lawmaker supporting McIntosh who asked for anonymity to speak freely.
However, Del. Jay Walker disputed the notion that Davis is a moderate, noting that he presided over the economic affairs committee that sent the $15 per hour minimum wage bill to the House floor and raised the age for tobacco use to 21.
“That’s a tough committee to chair. That’s a battleground committee,” Walker said. “He’s been fair.”
Del. C.T. Wilson, another Davis backer, sees moderation as one of Davis’ assets.
“He’s somebody who is a bridge-builder,” Wilson said.
McIntosh and her allies have relied mostly on process arguments, making the case for a speaker who reflects the consensus of the Democratic caucus. She has likened a GOP-fueled Davis win to situations in New York and Washington state, where blocs of renegade Democrats aligned with Republicans in the state Senates to deprive their party of the majority.
That’s not exactly an apt comparison. In Maryland, Davis would remain speaker of a Democrat-controlled House.
But by winning the speakership thanks to Republican support, Davis would effectively be welcoming the GOP as a silent coalition partner.
“That is the danger of this: They now have undue influence on good Democratic policies going forward,” said a Democratic delegate backing McIntosh.
Wilson does not have a problem with giving state Republicans a greater voice in the process.
Referring to Republicans’ minority status in Maryland politics, Wilson said, “We can’t minimize the minority ― African Americans, women, Hispanics and Republicans.”
For now, McIntosh is confident that enough delegates who back Davis in the caucus vote will rally behind her for the sake of unity in a vote on the floor.
On a press call on Tuesday, a reporter asked McIntosh whether she was really certain of victory.
“I feel like it’s mine,” she replied.
This story has been updated to explain the circumstances of the speakership opening up.
CORRECTION: This article previously misidentified Anthony Brown as the first black lieutenant governor and misstated that Davis would be the third African American elected to statewide office.