Josh Kurtz: In Luke They Trust

There is no way to overstate the significance of House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s decision to make Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. For starters, Clippinger represents a radical – and welcome – departure from the man he will be replacing, outgoing Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s). And Clippinger must now be considered a leading contender to replace Busch as speaker, whenever Busch (D-Anne Arundel) decides to step away. Clippinger represents a 180-degree turn from Vallario atop the Judiciary panel. Vallario, 81, who lost his primary last month, has served in the legislature since 1975 and has been chairman since 1993. He’s a defense lawyer who has often been seen by advocates for women, civil rights groups, criminal justice reformers and traffic safety advocates, as an impediment to progress. A courtly man who is very much of his generation, Vallario is one of the last political moderates in the Democratic caucus. He is married, with six children and 21 grandchildren. 

Del. Luke H. Clippinger

Clippinger, 45, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County, is openly gay, and a leader of the progressive wing in the House. He’s a lifelong resident of Baltimore City, and has sponsored one of the signature pieces of Democratic law this legislative term, the earned sick leave bill. A cancer survivor, Clippinger has led the diverse House Democratic Caucus since 2015 and has already proven to be a strategic member of leadership. He has close ties to labor, has worked on Capitol Hill, and was campaign manager to now-Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez during Perez’s aborted bid for state attorney general in 2006. The change in leadership at Judiciary will bring dramatic change to the way the committee operates and to the fate of numerous pieces of legislation. Now, two members of the same generation – Clippinger and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who is 47 – head the legislature’s law-and-order panels, though Zirkin has a civil and family law practice. This is a significant development. As for the future of House leadership, it has widely been assumed that whenever Busch, who is finishing his 16th year as speaker and 32nd year in the legislature, decides to leave, the leading contenders to replace him will be House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) – with McIntosh having the slight edge at present. But McIntosh, at 70, is just 11 months younger than Busch. Who knows when Busch finally will decide to retire and whether McIntosh will be ready to step up – or if her colleagues at that point will be looking for someone younger to take over? In Clippinger, there is now a plausible and more progressive alternative to Davis in the next generation of potential top House leaders (Davis is 51) – though House Ways and Means Chairwoman Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery), who is 50, could also be in the mix at that point. Vallario’s controversial tenure as chairman of Judiciary had a profound impact on Busch’s legacy, and fairly or not, occasionally made the veteran speaker seem tethered to the past. Now, with Clippinger’s ascent – and with several other promotions that he announced this week, chief among them Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) to be vice chairwoman of the Health and Government Operations Committee and Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary to be vice chairwoman of Judiciary – Busch is clearly thinking about the future.

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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