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Emerge Maryland: Hoping to Capture Momentum Ahead of 2020

Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Each time the words “Madame Speaker” were uttered Thursday night, a loud cheer went up at the annual fundraiser for Emerge Maryland, the training program for Democratic women seeking elected office.

“We could not be here celebrating women running for office at a more appropriate time than tonight,” Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) told the crowd, invoking the historic ascension earlier this week of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who is the first woman and the first African American to wield the speaker’s gavel.

The theme of the 2019 fundraiser was momentum, something the organization seems to have. Since 2012, Emerge Maryland has trained more than 100 women to run for public office. Last November, 19 of 25 Emerge Maryland alumnae won their races; 11 Emerge women were elected to the General Assembly – with a 12th on the way, in Annapolis Alderwoman Shaneka Henson, who has been nominated to fill the vacancy left in the House of Delegates after the death of the late Speaker Michael E. Busch (D).

It was lost on no one at the event that Busch has been succeeded by two black women – Jones at the rostrum and Henson in the district.

“I think it is a testament to his leadership. He was a coach in sports, he was a coach in politics, he was a coach in life,” Henson told the crowd, who cheered her. “And he really built a bench. He made sure that when he transitioned, there were people who could do the work.”

Henson, a 2017 graduate of Emerge, shared stories of her own trials on the campaign trail, including a breakthrough when she was told to answer debate questions with “authority.”

She looked up the definitions of authority and found one: “official permission.”

“What really happened in 2018 was that women were willing to become their own authority. We gave ourselves permission to take our own power,” Henson said.

Henson was on hand earlier this week for the Democratic caucus meeting that led to Jones’ election as speaker.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) described bonding with Henson and holding hands during tense moments in four hours of caucus debate.

“It was hard for all of us. It was painful, there were divisive moments. But ultimately we came together,” Charkoudian said. “And the women in the room led. The women are the ones who led us towards the compromise, a beautiful solution that got us the incredible Adrienne Jones as Madame Speaker.”

Martha McKenna, chair of the Emerge Maryland board, noted that there were two important votes for women on Wednesday: for Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who won an initial poll of Democratic lawmakers, and for Jones, who emerged as a consensus candidate after maneuvering by “some quiet heroes who were in that room yesterday.”

McKenna beamed when she referred to Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, an Emerge board member who nominated both women candidates for speaker and who gave an impassioned speech that united the caucus. Charkoudian paraphrased for the crowd a quote from Peña-Melnyk after the vote:

“Tonight, there will be little girls – black, brown, Asian, white – that are going to watch the news and say, ‘I can do that.’ And that is beautiful and inspiring.”

The crowd cheered.

More than 200 people attended the annual fundraiser, including four members of Maryland’s congressional delegation, which happens to be entirely male and has been since 2017. Congressional lawmakers touted progress on women’s issues on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has sponsored a resolution with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would remove a ratification deadline and revive consideration of the Equal Rights Amendment, which is just one state short of meeting the three-fourths threshold for ratification.

“A constitutional democracy needs to have that in its constitution,” Cardin said. “…The way a nation treats its women will tell you how great a nation is. Thanks to your work, America is a stronger country.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D) said the House Judiciary Committee will be sending the ERA legislation to the floor soon. House members have already sent over an “equal pay for equal work” measure, but it has been sitting in the Senate without action.

“Frankly, it’s the Senate that’s the graveyard for legislation. So that’s why this is so important as we go into 2020; we have to finish the job we started in 2018,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “And the energy that Emerge and women across the country have brought to our election process, showing the strength and health of our democracy … what we saw in 2018, we’ve got to keep going in 2020.”

The event’s host, Rep. David J. Trone (D), said U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “is just the greatest.”

“And she says all the time: Our diversity is our strength, but our power is our unity. And that’s what we Democrats are going to need to do this next year-and-a-half, is show that unity,” Trone said. “We may or may not agree on every candidate, but for the White House and to get back the Senate, we’ve got to see who comes out and unite.”

Wilkins read off a list of legislation that had been passed in the Maryland General Assembly by Emerge Maryland alumnae, including measures to require testing of evidence kits in rape investigations, equal pay enforcement and a prohibition on labor trafficking.

“Those 11 women, soon to be 12, truly stepped up this session,” she said.

In discussing how government is different when more women have roles, Charkoudian thanked Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) for helping to get her first piece of legislation drafted and lauded Wilkins as “a master of celebrating everyone else on the floor in her Twitter feed.”

When more women are in power, Charkoudian told the crowd, egos are set aside and good policy work is celebrated.

“It’s a new world we are going to create. Because when women are in office, in these numbers, we govern differently,” Charkoudian said. 

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Emerge Maryland: Hoping to Capture Momentum Ahead of 2020