Six Freshman Senators to Watch

Sen.-elect Melony G. Griffith (D)

The freshman class of the state Senate – one of the largest in recent memory – is epitomized by two dynamic young leaders, Sen.-elect Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who is 36, and Sen.-elect Sarah Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), who is 30.

Both have been touted by political insiders as rising stars for several years, and both have gotten plenty of attention since their election.

After one term in the House, McCray, a union electrician, ousted one of the highest-ranking members of the Senate, President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden, in the Democratic primary last year. He was also just elected first vice chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party. And he has helped build a political network of talented young Baltimore City Democratic politicians (including Sen.-elect Antonio L. Hayes, who is 41).

Elfreth spent years laying the groundwork for her election with her civic and political work. She energized the local Democratic organization and rode a wave of enthusiasm from women and progressives to win a highly competitive open seat that had been held since 1995 by outgoing Sen. John C. Astle (D), a 36-year veteran of the legislature.

Elfreth and McCray are sure to make an immediate impact on the state Senate. Both are headed to the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee. Both are fiendishly hard workers. And both are poised to have long, prosperous political careers.

The state Senate is a small enough body that every new member is likely to grab attention and make a difference at some point during the legislative session. But we’re not including McCray and Elfreth on our list of the top six freshman senators to watch in 2019.

Here’s why: Both are, at their essence, conventional politicians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Conventional politicians are often among the most successful, and Elfreth and McCray have a skill set that should enable them to thrive in any political environment.

But other members of the incoming Senate class are likely to be more unpredictable – and provide heartburn to their party leaders. Thus, they’re more likely to bear watching.

Five of the six on our “watch” list have already spent time in the House of Delegates, meaning their political instincts, priorities and work habits are already well honed. They’re more likely to provide drama – and entertainment.

So these are the six freshmen to watch in 2019, in alphabetical order:

Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore): After a term in the House, Carozza defeated veteran politician James N. Mathias Jr. (D), who was personally popular even as his district became too Republican for him to survive. Carozza is a seasoned political player in her own right, having worked on Capitol Hill and for President George W. Bush and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). She’s likely to be slightly more conservative than Mathias on economic, social and environmental issues, but her priorities and work product may not be all that different from Mathias’ in the last analysis. Also of note: Though Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) stumped for Carozza as part of the GOP’s unsuccessful push to flip five state Senate seats held by Democrats, and the two worked under Ehrlich, they are not personally close.

Arthur Ellis (D-Charles): Ellis, an accountant, military veteran and local NAACP leader, pulled the upset of the year when he ousted powerful Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D). Republicans talked big about taking Ellis out in the general election, but he romped. Ellis and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), a Middleton ally who represents an adjoining district, have largely made peace since the primary. But at this early stage it’s hard to say what Ellis will do in his first year – and he must be considered a wildcard.

Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s): After four terms in the House, Griffith ran unsuccessfully against a Miller ally, veteran Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, in the 2014 Democratic primary, but then came back to win Currie’s seat four years later, after he retired. With a long record and strong opinions on health care policy, education, poverty and economic development, she’s poised to become one of the most effective freshmen from day one. And like McCray and Elfreth, she’ll have a strategic perch on the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery): After three terms in the House, Kramer joins a chamber where his father and sister once served. Even with a stentorian voice like Kramer’s, it’s hard to get attention sometimes in the House. It’s easy to imagine Kramer taking to the Senate floor often, spotlighting his government reform agenda. He’s also more pro-business than most of his Democratic colleagues, which should make for an interesting dynamic. And look for him to continue to fight Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) on Franchot’s push to expand the craft brewing industry in Maryland.

Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City): After two terms in the House, she’s already proven that she’s afraid of no one, no matter how powerful, and that will continue in the Senate. With her perch on the Judicial Proceedings Committee – where some people think she’ll clash with Chairman Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) – expect Washington to become a major player on criminal justice issues and on the proposal to allow Johns Hopkins University to establish its own private police force. She’s not hiding her political ambitions, either.

Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County): Any Republican who routinely amasses high scores from both Maryland Business for Responsive Government and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters bears watching. After one term in the House, but with an array of professional and life experiences, West may feel liberated in the Senate. Is he set to become the next great Senate Republican moderate, like John A. Cade or Vernon F. Boozer?

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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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