Ten Questions Annapolis Is Asking Ahead of Wednesday’s Vote for Speaker

The empty House speaker's rostrum on Sine Die, shrouded by flowers and bunting following the death of Speaker Michael E. Busch (D). File photo

The House of Delegates convenes in special session on Wednesday to choose a new leader. It’s the first time since 2003  that the position of speaker has come open, and the campaign to succeed the late Michael E. Busch (D) has brought considerable tension to the surface.

Coming on the heels of an exhausting 90-day legislative session, the unusual intra-party battle — where most of the chamber is being asked to choose between two people they like and admire — is producing a palpable sense of strain.

With the withdrawal of Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) on Friday, there are now two candidates vying for the post — Dels. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore) and Dereck E. Davis (Prince George’s).

Both are seasoned veterans of the Maryland legislature, and both chair key committees. Davis has run Economic Matters since 2003; McIntosh has wielded the Appropriations gavel since 2015 and was chair of Environmental Matters and majority leader before that. Both were mentored by and felt close to Busch.

House Democrats, who hold 98 of the chamber’s 140 seats (Busch’s is still vacant), will hold a caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, two hours before the special session, to determine whether Davis or McIntosh has a majority of the majority. Whoever emerges from that high-stakes session should, in theory, be the slam-dunk winner on the floor.

The behind-closed-doors gathering promises to be riveting and tense — and it may well drag on longer than the two hours that have been allotted, pushing the start of the special session past noon.

Republicans, who hold 42 votes, will have less to discuss at their morning caucus meeting. Their floor leader, Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) has been authorized by the rank and file to engage with the two Democratic candidates. Kipke told Maryland Matters on Tuesday that GOP lawmakers will vote as a bloc for the candidate they judge to be most likely to treat them fairly.

There are many, many questions swirling around the vote for speaker. Here, in no particular order, are some of them:

Will either candidate get to Wednesday’s special session with 71 Democratic votes? The speculation about whether Republicans will tip the balance to one candidate — speculation that has consumed Annapolis for days — becomes moot if Davis or McIntosh has the magic number of votes within their own caucus.

Have Republicans been promised anything in exchange for their expected support of Davis? If Republican lawmakers play a significant role in making him speaker, the laws of politics strongly suggest they will be in a position to get something, if not right away, then over time.

What is that something? Davis sharply rejected suggestions Monday that the GOP has been offered special consideration in redistricting, and Kipke likewise said he has not sought nor been promised anything.

How will the House change if Davis wins with GOP support? Unlike the “freewheeling” Senate, where Republican-backed amendments occasionally get added to legislation, the House has traditionally been more hierarchical, more “top-down,” a dynamic that strongly discourages rank-and-file Democrats from backing Republican floor amendments.

If Davis wins the speakership with perhaps more votes from Republicans than Democrats, could he enforce such a rule with a straight face?

What role will gender play? While the Legislative Black Caucus has been vocal in backing Davis, who would be the first African-American elected to a top legislative post in state history, there’s been less overt cheerleading about the history that McIntosh, potentially the first woman and the first gay presiding officer in Maryland history, stands to make.

How will African-Americans from Baltimore vote? With Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) holed up at home battling illness and legal troubles, ex officio Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) purging City Hall of Pugh aides, and a murder rate that continues to climb, Baltimore desperately needs a win. A win by McIntosh would put the beleaguered city in every meeting that matters in Annapolis.

So how do African-American legislators from the city vote on the floor? Will geography trump the rarest of all opportunities to shatter a glass ceiling? Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore), an African-American lawmaker appointed in 2017, said he is being bombarded with advice.

“Everyone is talking about it,” he said. “Every call I get, I know the first thing is going to be this.”

Mosby said he is undecided.

Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore), another African-American newcomer, said she will back the caucus’ pick, but she appeared on a telephone news conference with McIntosh Tuesday afternoon.

How will the new speaker reward his or her allies? At a minimum, one committee seat comes open when the race is over — and either would be a plum assignment. Who would McIntosh tap to chair Appropriations? Who would Davis select for his current post? What other changes — if any — would come as the winner divvies up the spoils of victory?

Will Democrats on the House floor unify behind the candidate who gets the most votes in the Democratic caucus meeting? African-American leaders claim that a solid block of black caucus members are prepared to back Davis on the floor even if he finishes second in the Democratic caucus. When the moment comes, will they do it? And will it be enough to upend the result? McIntosh told reporters Tuesday that some of Davis’ supporters have privately pledged to back her on the floor if she prevails in the Democratic caucus.

What role will personal relationships play? Both candidates are personable policy wonks who are liked by their colleagues. While the issue of race (and to a much lesser extent, gender and geography) has dominated discussions about the speaker’s race, personal dynamics could be the ultimate wildcard, making any attempt at a pre-session vote count especially tricky.

Will the race for speaker impact any subsequent vote in the Senate? While long-serving Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is determined to power through his cancer treatments and return for at least another session, if not more, whispered speculation about who comes next is not infrequent.

If Davis becomes speaker, will that make it less likely that fellow Prince George’s Sens. Paul G. Pinsky (D) or Douglass J.J. Peters (D) succeed Miller, for example?

How will the new speaker reach out to the runner-up and his or her supporters? Some people will leave Annapolis unhappy, it seems clear. The next speaker faces a big job on Day 1 — reaching out to disappointed supporters of the also-ran candidate and helping soothe raw feelings. This will be an early test of his or her leadership skills for sure.

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