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Jones Exits Speaker Race, Backs Davis in Black Caucus Unity Bid

House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) at a news conference in Baltimore Friday as Dels. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) and Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) look on. Photo by Josh Kurtz

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) dropped out of the race to replace the late Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) Friday, throwing her support to House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s).

In a news conference at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture in downtown Baltimore, Jones cast her decision as an attempt to unify the Legislative Black Caucus behind Davis.

“Unity must outweigh pride,” she said.

Davis is now engaged in a head-to-head fight with House Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) to succeed Busch, who died April 7 after 17 years in the top job.

While acknowledging the opportunity to make history by becoming the first African-American presiding officer in the history of the Maryland General Assembly if he is elected, Davis said he is not making direct racial appeals as he campaigns for speaker.

“I’m not running for speaker to represent a single caucus,” he said. “I’m not running to represent the black caucus. I’m not running to represent the women’s caucus. I’m not running to represent the Democratic caucus. I’m running to be speaker of the House of Delegates.”

The Davis-McIntosh fight will be decided by 140 voters – or 141, if Busch’s designated successor in his Anne Arundel County-based House seat, Annapolis Ald. Shaneka Henson (D), is sworn in before Wednesday’s special House session. Democrats have 98 members – or 99, if Henson is in office – while Republicans have 42.

But GOP leaders have said the caucus plans to vote as a bloc for one of the Democratic contenders, and while no one has said so publicly, it is widely assumed that Davis, who has been a pro-business centrist during his time leading the Economic Matters panel, is in line to receive their votes.

McIntosh last week issued a statement outlining her progressive priorities, while Davis said Friday that he prefers to wait because he wants to hold a retreat with his fellow delegates to chart an agenda if he is elected speaker.

“I don’t think anyone who is truly conservative thinks I’m a conservative,” he said.

Davis turned away questions about the implications of slating with Republicans to earn a majority vote on the House floor. He said he has made no promises to GOP House leaders – or anyone else, for that matter.

“All they’ve asked us for is they want a seat at the table,” he said of Republicans. “All they want from me if I’m speaker is the same level of respect they got from Mike Busch.”

Asked if he would defer to the will of the Democratic caucus if he falls short in that vote, which is scheduled to take place just before the full House convenes Wednesday, Davis replied, “I haven’t thought, quite frankly, about not winning” in the caucus.

The question comes amid mounting pressure from party leaders and progressive interest groups that align with the Democrats for the candidates for speaker to honor the will of the Democratic caucus – and for Democrats to refrain from entering into an alliance with Republicans to elect the next speaker.

House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), who appeared at the news conference with Davis and Jones, blasted those efforts.

“We don’t need threats,” he said. “We don’t need that kind of verbiage to be in the papers or on TV.”

In an interview, Branch, who prides himself on his vote-counting skills, declined to say where the vote count is between McIntosh and Davis, but said for now he is focusing only on winning Democratic votes for Davis.

“We’re working in a Democratic caucus,” he said. “That’s where our votes are going to come from.”

Davis’ bid received a boost Friday from U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), who once served alongside Davis representing the same legislative district.

“Black voters are the most loyal constituency of the Maryland Democratic Party, and the backing of the African American community has been critical to every Democratic victory across our state,” Brown said in a statement. “Even though African Americans continue to break barriers and make significant strides in public life, we have only managed to put cracks in the glass ceiling of our state’s political leadership. This can and must change now.”

The 45-member Legislative Black Caucus – which will get a 46th member whenever Henson is sworn in – could represent a substantial base of votes for Davis. Several African-American delegates – some publicly, others privately – have decried efforts to pressure Democrats to vote only for the choice of the Democratic caucus, saying such a policy could interfere with Davis’ opportunity to make history.

But in an interview immediately after Friday’s news conference, McIntosh said she expects to have votes from at least a third of the black caucus and added that she has 60 solid commitments from Democrats to support her candidacy. The winner will need 71 votes on the House floor.

McIntosh said she did not think Jones’ endorsement of Davis changes the dynamic of the race.

“The race has kind of always been between Chairman Davis and me and I think this makes it clear,” she said. “But I don’t think it makes it clear along racial lines or along political lines. Chairman Davis and I have been working this race for a long time, and it’s here.”

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Jones Exits Speaker Race, Backs Davis in Black Caucus Unity Bid