Opinion: Speaker Election Presents Opportunity for Political Reform

When 17-year House Speaker Mike Busch (D-Anne Arundel) passed away on Sine Die eve, the grieving was nearly unanimous.

Almost immediately thereafter, the long-time whisper campaign for Speaker turned into a battle of votes. The chair of Appropriations, Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore City, Chair of Economic Matters, Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County, and Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County all announced their candidacies, but Jones and Davis formed an alliance to unite around Davis, following Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings demanding that Democrats follow the vote of the Democratic Caucus on May 1 or face increased costs for party services.

While McIntosh is purported to have the votes to get the endorsement of the Democratic Caucus, that is no guarantee for her to become speaker. Progressive groups, unions, and the state Democratic chair are demanding that Dem delegates support the choice of the Democratic Caucus, as there are murmurs that Republicans may form a bloc to support a candidate a la the IDC in New York’s Senate. There is no precedent nor reason to build a coalition government with a Democratic supermajority. When taking questions after his news conference Friday with Jones, Davis said that he is not considering Republican committee vice chairs, and he is “not focused on” the potential of a coalition speakership with Republicans. He also promised to work with “all caucuses” and “in a bipartisan fashion.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, and Congressman Anthony Brown have all endorsed Davis for speaker, while The Baltimore Sun has endorsed McIntosh.

Prince George’s County Council At-Large members Mel Franklin and Calvin Hawkins and Del. Darryl Barnes (on behalf of the Legislative Black Caucus) haven’t outright endorsed Davis but have complained about the “threatening and bullying” from Rockeymoore Cummings.

The speaker of the House picks the committee chairs, the leadership, and sets the legislative agenda for Maryland House Democrats. It is a very powerful position with almost no democratic accountability. With the first opportunity to elect a House speaker in over a decade, Maryland Democratic voters deserve increased transparency and democratization within their caucus. These are demands of our next speaker:

Term limits for speaker and other leadership positions

Mike Busch was speaker for 17 years. He oversaw a rapid transition where there are now multiple democratic socialists within the Democratic Caucus. He saw the power centers completely change. And there’s no reason any other delegate should be in charge of the rodeo for that long ever again. The House speaker is particularly powerful and should be voted on each session, with eight-year term limits for all future speakers and committee chairs.

Democratize the Caucus

Currently, the speaker picks the majority leader, majority whip, chair of the Democratic Caucus, the committee chairs, and committee members. Why aren’t these positions elected within the caucus?

Would former Del. Joe Vallario (D-Prince George’s) have been House Judiciary chair for almost 30 years and killing legislation on issues such as ending parental rights for rapists if the position was elected within the caucus? Shouldn’t party positions be switched up with regularity to help build our bench for the future?

The author supports the following people for these positions:

  • Maggie McIntosh (Baltimore City), Speaker
  • Debra Davis (Charles County), Speaker Pro Tempore
  • Julian Ivey (Prince George’s), Deputy Speaker Pro Tempore
  • Erek Barron (Prince George’s), Majority Leader
  • Melissa Wells (Baltimore City), Deputy Majority Leader
  • Stephanie Smith (Baltimore City), Majority Whip
  • David Moon (Montgomery), Chair of the Democratic Caucus
  • Charles Edward Sydnor III (Baltimore County), Judiciary Chair
  • Shelly Hettleman (Baltimore County) OR Gabriel Acevero (Montgomery), Appropriations Chair
  • Lorig Charkoudian (Montgomery), Economic Matters Chair
  • Steve Lafferty (Baltimore County) OR Vaughn Stewart (Montgomery), Environment & Transportation Chair
  • Joseline Peña-Melnyk (Prince George’s) OR Robbyn Lewis (Baltimore City), Health & Government Operations Chair
  • Alonzo Washington (Prince George’s) OR Jheanelle Wilkins (Montgomery), Ways and Means Chair

More Transparent Process

Richard DeShay Elliott

The speaker’s race has been a whisper campaign among Democratic insiders for years. Most voters don’t know who occupies the position, let alone what they do. Why isn’t there a public forum every year to ensure that the speaker hears from Democratic voters all over the state, rather than just special interests? This race needs visibility especially because the selection could wind up being whoever can donate the most to other elected officials. Both McIntosh and Davis have made campaign cash transfers to other electeds for years, specifically to curry favor for the speaker’s race.

The speaker doesn’t just represent the Democratic Caucus in Annapolis. He or she needs to represent Democratic voters and democratic values.

Concrete Policy Platform

 Every year, the speaker should introduce a concrete policy platform that will deliver results to everyday Marylanders. With a supermajority, the speaker should be able to pass all ofher desired legislation in any given year, at least in the House. This concrete agenda will also put pressure on Senate Democrats to pass legislation.

Unionize Annapolis Staffers

Annapolis staffers are underpaid and overworked, have a very stressful work environment, and have little recourse for wrongdoing by their bosses and employees. These staffers have to work for three months of the year and find temporary jobs after session or work for campaigns full time – tough jobs to find. If Annapolis staffers were unionized, they could collectively bargain for fair wages, better hours, avenues to justice in cases of mistreatment, and health insurance. This includes the janitors, the cafeteria workers, the security guards, the researchers in the Department of Legislative Services, and every other person working in Annapolis.

Restructure Ethics Enforcement in Annapolis

If this year ain’t show it, none ever will. Annapolis is a town of partying politicians as much as it a town of legislative activity. Rumors abound of married legislators cheating on their spouses (often with other elected officials and lobbyists). Sexual harassment and sexual assault is not unheard of. Pay-for-play. An “omerta” culture. And nothing can be done about it unless enforcing ethics is de-politicized and in the hands of independent actors, not elected officials.

Turning State Senate President and House Speaker into Statewide Elected Positions

In Maryland politics, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has been the most powerful elected official for decades, even though voters have no clue who he is. The positions of state Senate president and House speaker are both so powerful in a state with guaranteed super majorities that we should consider making them statewide elected positions during the Democratic primary. With a rapidly changing Maryland Democratic Party, what is a better way to ensure that the leadership is following the demands of voters?

Improve Press Accessibility in Annapolis

Stop and think about how many news sources we have in this state. The Sun, The Washington Post, the Capital Gazette, the Daily Record, and a smattering of well-written blogs that go straight to email like DMVDaily News and Maryland Matters. Prince George’s County, larger than several states, has no weekly newspaper dedicated specifically to local issues.

Now that the House and Senate are beginning livestreams, we need to ensure that Marylanders can hear what is happening in Annapolis and how it relates to their day-to-day lives. The next speaker should be committed to opening up Annapolis to press.

Expel Del. Mary Ann Lisanti

If you ain’t heard what Delegate Lisanti said, just Google her. Mary Ann Lisanti is a lame duck legislator who, as of last session, had no committee nor subcommittee assignments. She can’t represent her district in Annapolis. She’s been asked to resign by dozens of organizations. She has no plans to resign yet is still being paid and has an office and staff.

She should be expelled for not just her disrespectful language, but also her lack of concern for the decorum of office that’s been disruptive to Annapolis.

Encode Reproductive Rights, Unionization, Ballot Initiatives and Recall Elections in the Maryland Constitution

This past session, Speaker Busch was pushing for a constitutional amendment to protect reproductive rights in Maryland. With the U.S. Supreme Court now having a conservative majority and no guarantee that a Democrat will be elected president in 2020, we should protect these rights within Maryland as strongly as possible.

Within Maryland, there has been a recent push for right-to-work laws. Unionization rates, especially in the private sector, are falling. The Fight for $15 bill had enormous cut-outs that will negatively impact the most vulnerable Marylanders.

What can we do about this? We can ensure that all Marylanders have the right to join or form a union. Maryland can be one of the most progressive states in the nation on labor with this right coded into the Maryland Constitution.

Ballot initiatives have been notoriously difficult in Maryland, as they need legislative action to be possible. If the same rules that apply for Baltimore City initiatives (10 percent of voters in the previous gubernatorial general election) were applied to the state, think about how much legislation could pass in this state. Recall elections would make it easier for Baltimore residents to remove Mayor Catherine Pugh under her current scandal, or other legislators found to be unacceptable by their voters.

With political power in the hands of the voters and the residents, we can completely change this state’s political culture.

— Richard DeShay Elliott

The writer is a Political Science Ph. D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, a former electoral fellow for Progressive Maryland, and campaign strategist with Chris Ervin for Baltimore City, District 5. You can find him on Twitter at @RichElliottMD & Facebook.



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