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Government & Politics

As Speaker Vote Looms, Black Caucus Leaders Declare ‘This Is Our Time’

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and members of the Legislative Black Caucus at a news conference in Annapolis Monday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Two days before the Maryland House of Delegates meets to choose a new speaker, members of the Legislative Black Caucus emerged from a 90-minute closed-door meeting brimming with determination and confidence that one of their own — Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) — will make history by becoming the first African-American ever elected to a top leadership post in Annapolis.

Leaders of the group claimed that approximately 30 members of the caucus are firmly in Davis’s camp, willing to back him not only in Wednesday morning’s Democratic Caucus vote but also in the special session of the House that is set to begin at noon.

If that number is valid and if it holds (leadership votes are notoriously difficult to forecast, even for seasoned legislators), the Prince Georgian could hit the magic number of 71 by aligning himself with the 42-member House Republican caucus, a subject of tantalizing — and divisive — rumors for weeks.

Caucus leaders cast their support for Davis in historical terms, noting that while many African-Americans have served in senior positions of leadership in state legislatures around the country, few have ascended to the very top.

“If not now, then when?” said Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chair of the black caucus and a Davis supporter, who represents the same legislative district as Davis. “I think this is our opportunity. And we’re going to seize the moment.”

About two dozen of the caucus’s 44 House members attended Monday’s closed-door meeting and stood behind Barnes and Davis at a news conference.

“I think as a collective body we’re showing our strength right now,” Barnes said. “This is a great demonstration of where we are as a caucus.”

Maryland’s House speakers have always been white men, and Wednesday’s vote promises a historic outcome. Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) would become the first woman and the first openly gay speaker in state history; Davis would be the first black lawmaker.

While these potential “firsts” excite many state lawmakers, the process for choosing a successor to Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who died on April 7, has been fraught with tension. One member of the Black Caucus quit on Friday to protest what she claimed was an insensitive remark by Barnes, aimed at McIntosh, three weeks ago. He has denied making the statement.

Davis said his candidacy “is much bigger than me. This is about inclusiveness. … This is about everybody having a seat at the table.”

“I’m running because of Verda Welcome, Arthur King, Larry Young, Kweisi Mfume, Joan Carter Conway, Ulysses Currie, all those before me who served in leadership roles, but could never quite get the opportunity to make it all the way to the top,” Davis said, name-checking leading Maryland African-American Democrats.

Talk of deals with GOP ‘garbage’

Maryland lawmakers may be back in special session a second time this year to vote on a congressional map for the 2020 elections, and Davis was asked if he has cut a deal with Republicans on redistricting — or anything else — in exchange for their support.

“No,” he said. “I’ve heard that same garbage that has come out. … The process doesn’t change because I become speaker.

“No matter who wins this race on Wednesday, it’s still going to be a Democrat in charge,” he added. “I think we lose sight of that.”

Del. Edith J. Patterson (D-Charles), the first vice president of the black caucus, noted that Busch appointed Davis to chair the committee he had previously led, Economic Matters, after he became speaker in 2003.

She called Davis’ panel “the heart, the pulse, of our House of Delegates and our state of Maryland.”

The committee has jurisdiction over energy and utility policy, telecommunications, banking, technology and workforce issues, among others.

“Chairman Davis has the credentials, he has the position and he has demonstrated leadership in his role as chair of Economic Matters,” Patterson added.

Despite the expressions of confidence and determination displayed by black caucus leaders and many members, additional signs of discord emerged on Monday.

Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), a vice-chairman of the Democratic Caucus who is black, sent a letter to colleagues urging them to “stand with our caucus and vote for our nominee on the House floor.”

“The prospect of a divided caucus choosing the next speaker poses serious governing questions while sowing seeds of distrust in our Caucus that may be impossible to repair,” Lewis wrote. “We can include Republican leadership in important decisions in a bipartisan manner without allowing the minority caucus to choose who the next speaker is.”

State Sen. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore), an African-American former delegate, posted on Facebook that she is “deeply frustrated and increasingly concerned with the tenor of the campaign to succeed” Busch.

“This campaign has become toxic to the Democratic Caucus, the Maryland Democratic Party and — most important — to the Maryland House of Delegates as an institution.”

Praying on the decision

Freshman Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) stood behind Davis at the news conference Monday even though she is supporting McIntosh.

“I am with the caucus,” she said in an interview. “I do support the idea of an African-American speaker. I do support a change in history, so that’s why I stood there.”

Bartlett said she considers both candidates to have been mentors and has prayed on whom to support.

“It’s very hard to put into words. It’s been an emotional decision,” she said.

Bartlett ultimately decided to support McIntosh because of her vote in favor of the End-of-Life Option Act, a piece of legislation that’s important to her, while Davis voted against the measure.

Bartlett said Busch’s death, followed by a contested election for his replacement with so many factors in play, has made for a difficult first year as a lawmaker. She’s looking forward to a resolution this week.

In an interview, Davis said his quarter-century in the legislature includes numerous instances of leadership that his colleagues can look to for inspiration.

He pointed to his efforts to lower the state’s standard for drunk driving to 0.8 blood-alcohol level and to boost renewable energy and the first statewide minimum wage. He said he rescued former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s wind energy bill when it was stuck and that he gave an impassioned floor speech for eliminating capital punishment that was pivotal to the measure’s passage.

“I feel pretty confident that I represent my constituents the way they want me to,” he said.

Asked if he regretted his vote against same-sex marriage when it passed in 2012, Davis said, “At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do.” But he vowed not to tamper with existing gay rights laws.

And asked if he would commit to honoring the majority of the Democratic caucus if he loses that vote, he replied, “At this point, I’m still trying to win it. I’m not going to concede.”

Davis did acknowledge that he will bow out of the race if he becomes convinced McIntosh has 71 votes sewn up. But, he said, “Until the die is cast, not every vote is a certainty.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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As Speaker Vote Looms, Black Caucus Leaders Declare ‘This Is Our Time’