The race for speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates shifted into high gear Wednesday, as the three Democrats running for the post all talked openly, and in greater detail than before, about their candidacies.
The robust jockeying over who will succeed Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the man who led the chamber for 17 sessions, came one day after he was laid to rest at a well-attended funeral not far from the State House.
Overhanging the public and private discussions about the race is whether Republican delegates, who make up less than a third of the chamber, could play a decisive role in the contest.
Democrats have 98 seats in the 141-member House, Republicans have 42. If Democrats coalesce behind the most popular candidate in their caucus, GOP lawmakers are effectively shut out. Whether that happens emerged as a potentially significant wild card Wednesday.
“That’s the assumption within the Democratic Caucus,” said speaker hopeful Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat from Baltimore City. “There has never been, in the history of the House, a Democratic nominee that has had it overturned by a combination of Republicans and a minority number of Democrats.
“I would find it hard to believe that many of my colleagues would go for that kind of scenario,” she said.
There has been speculation that if Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), another speaker candidate, comes up short in the caucus race, he might be willing to partner with Republicans on the House floor.
In an interview, he sidestepped such speculation.
“I’ve not focused on finishing second place anywhere. It’s not how I’m built,” he said. “I’m just working the entire body. I haven’t focused on the Democratic Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus, the women’s caucus, any of the sub-sets. … What we’re running for is speaker of the House of Delegates and that requires everyone having a voice.”
Davis said the issues confronting Maryland — he listed education funding, the opioid crisis and “health care for all” — aren’t partisan in nature.
“I have a reputation for being inclusive, for being fair and balanced,” he said. “There are numerous issues that are before us that’s going to require someone that’s viewed as nonpartisan and someone that will be fair to all, no matter what party they are in or what caucus they’re in.”
McIntosh said that Busch — “the speaker we just had for 17 sessions” — would want the Democrat Caucus to coalesce behind the top vote-getter.
“When it came to many important issues, he would remind us that we have only one letter on our jersey, and it’s a ‘D,’” she said. “And by the way, if I don’t win the nomination of the caucus, I will absolutely support the winner and encourage anyone who supported me to do the same.”
“I’m running on my record of being a progressive Democrat,” she added. “I’m running on my record of being a leader in the House.”
Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), who served with Busch from 2003 until his death on April 7 and now wants the top job, said she has been calling colleagues just like the other candidates.
“I’m reaching out to everybody. I haven’t gotten to them all because the conversations are long,” she said.
Asked whether the chamber could become fractured by the vote, which could be decided by the minority party, Jones responded, “It all depends on who winds up being the speaker.”
She believes she could bring people together. “I have shown that in the past.”
“To me, if you’re successful, we’re all successful. It may sound Pollyannaish but sometimes people have great ideas that just have to be listened to.”
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said the Republican Caucus decided unanimously earlier this session to vote as a bloc for one of the Democratic candidates.
The caucus empowered Kipke to meet with the announced candidates and bring back a recommendation for the caucus’ support. All three candidates have reached out personally or through representatives so far, Kipke said.
The qualities the caucus wants to see in a new speaker are “to be treated fairly, to have a seat at the table for all major issues, and to lead with a style that will reject partisanship and seek the best solutions for all Marylanders,” he said.
“We had a very good relationship with Speaker Busch, especially in recent years,” Kipke said. “So we want to build on that bipartisan relationship.”
Asked whether he was concerned that the minority party’s support of a candidate could sway the election and rankle the chamber, Kipke said, “One of the things I like most about the three candidates who have announced is that they all prioritize the institution of the House of Delegates, and I believe that they will honor the former speaker by working together with all of us.”
Another unknown is whether the Black Caucus — with 45 members, all Democrats — will vote as a bloc.
Caucus Chairman Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s) told The Washington Post that the group will meet in the coming days to decide on a candidate.
“The Black Caucus will be 100 percent unified by the time a vote takes place on May 1,” Barnes said, adding that any of the three candidates “would make history.”
McIntosh, 71, is openly gay. Jones, 64, and Davis, 51, are African-American. All of Maryland’s 106 House speakers have been white men (as have the state’s governors and Senate presidents).
The new speaker is expected to be chosen in a May 1 special session.
McIntosh said she has pledges of support from around 55 delegates and hopes to be at 60 soon.
Jones said she doesn’t have a firm vote count because she is still making calls.
Davis said the race is “very competitive. If this race was over, people wouldn’t be talking, they wouldn’t still be calling people. … It’s very much a battle.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct a quote from Minority Leader Nicholaus Kipke.
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