During a special session that lasted all of 14 minutes, the Maryland House of Delegates changed history forever Wednesday, electing Baltimore County Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D) as the chamber’s 107th speaker. She is the first woman and the first African-American to serve in the role.
“These walls will never be the same,” Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) declared on the House floor, to cheers from lawmakers who banged on their desks to create a rumble in the chamber. “We’ve got some new portraits coming!”
McIntosh, of course, had been the leading candidate in the Democratic caucus for the speaker’s position. She, too, would have made history if elected as an openly gay woman – as would have the other top contender, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), also an African-American, who was backed by the Legislative Black Caucus.
After hours of negotiations among Democrats Wednesday, Jones emerged as a consensus candidate: A longtime lawmaker with good relationships. A woman with experience leading the chamber after the death of Speaker Michael E. Busch (D) on the eve of Sine Die. An African-American who would break the generations-long streak of leadership by white men – the highest priority of the Legislative Black Caucus.
McIntosh offered Jones’ nomination on the House floor, which was seconded by Davis.
It was Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D), a black and Latina delegate from Prince George’s County supporting McIntosh’s bid, who eventually made the motion in the Democratic Caucus meeting to nominate Jones.
“We needed to come together and be strong,” Peña-Melnyk said later. “Because Speaker Busch would have wanted that.”
The nomination turned the tables in a caucus meeting that had trudged along for four hours, deadlocked over McIntosh and Davis. Sustained applause and cheers could be heard through the meeting room door.
In that moment, Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore), a black woman and past president of the Women’s Caucus recalled, she was filled with anxiousness and hope.
“I just felt as though we felt the spirit from Speaker Michael Busch. Because he’s always wanted us to be one accord. … I’m just very thankful,” Sample-Hughes said after the floor session. She said Jones’ success would allow people “across the nation to see that African-American women can ascend to positions of leadership beyond always being second. … You will see doors open, opportunities, for other people.”
House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) said he didn’t think he’d still be serving in Annapolis when an African-American ascended to the speakership.
“I honestly never thought this day would happen with me being in office. It’s an overwhelming flow of joy,” said Branch, who blinked back tears of joy during the caucus vote.
McIntosh, on the floor, called the Democratic Caucus meeting “the best one I ever attended.”
“Because we chose unanimously – unanimously – our speaker pro tem to lead us into the next several years of this term,” McIntosh said.
Davis commended Jones for her courage and strength in the final weeks of the 2019 legislative session, when she led the chamber as Busch was ailing and in the hours after his death.
He also referenced Jones’ gesture, last week, to withdraw from the speaker race to unify the black caucus behind his candidacy.
“One week ago, you were willing to step aside for me,” Davis said on the House floor. “And I’m honored to step aside for you now.”
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the group’s goal all along had been to elect an African-American speaker. While a majority of the black caucus had officially backed Davis earlier this week, “I am just as pleased and overjoyed that we do have Adrienne Jones to be our next speaker.”
Inside the caucus meeting, Barnes said he told lawmakers it was imperative for them to come together as a Democratic caucus and as the Legislative Black Caucus.
When consensus came, “it was jubilant,” Barnes said. “… For us to coalesce behind Adrienne I think is a beautiful thing.”
Jones is one of just a few black women to rise to the speaker position across the country. The first woman to do so is now-Congresswoman Karen Bass (D), who became speaker of the California Assembly in 2008; Sheila Y. Oliver, who is now New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, became the second black woman in the country to serve as speaker in 2011.
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said in a statement that Jones shattered two glass ceilings on Wednesday and forged an example for young women in Maryland.
“In today’s climate it is important now more than ever that young African-American girls see images of themselves reflected in leadership so they too can dream and aspire to those positions,” English said. “This day is monumental because it shows that the truly talented leaders of our state will go as far as their gifts will take them regardless of race or gender.”
Jones, speaking to reporters after the vote, was asked to reflect on her history-making election.
“You look at the photos in the gallery, in the chamber, there’s going to be a woman up there, a woman of color, and those are some of the things that are kind of exciting,” she said.
But she also conceded: “It hasn’t all sunk in.”
Peña-Melnyk also reflected on the historic nature of Jones’ election.
“Tonight, there will be little girls – black, brown, Asian, white – that are going to watch the news and say, ‘I can do that,’” Peña-Melnyk said. “And that is beautiful and inspiring.”
William F. Zorzi contributed to this report.