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Government & Politics

Analysis: Speaker Jones Speaks

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) speaks with Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger (D) at an event in Randallstown last month. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Years ago, when Casper R. Taylor Jr. was speaker of the House of Delegates, he traveled from his home in Western Maryland to Montgomery County to address a leadership group. Well into his very long speech, a member of the audience turned to another and said, “I guess that’s why they call him the speaker.”

Taylor’s successor once removed, current Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), has been a woman of few public words since ascending to the top job on May 1. Instead, she’s been meeting with members individually and in groups, traveling the state to see their districts and get a better sense of their concerns.

But she spoke volumes with her round of leadership appointments and revised committee assignments, which were made public late Friday afternoon.

And in a memo to her colleagues Friday, obtained by Maryland Matters, Jones expounded on her decisions, her governing philosophy, and her desire to make the House a more transparent and small-d democratic place.

“From the outset of my Speakership, I have focused on two main principles: (1) making sure that the House Democratic Caucus and the House of Delegates is unified going in to the 2020 legislative session and (2) looking at the way the House does business and make changes where appropriate,” Jones wrote.

“We should not continue to do things ‘because that’s the way it has always been done.’”

With that, Jones outlined her goals: growing the leadership team and ensuring it includes at least one freshman; reforming the way members of the public sign up to testify at hearings and deliver their testimony in writing, so they can do so digitally; wiring the House chamber for video streaming and exploring ways to expand digital coverage of floor and committee proceedings; and making Democratic Caucus meetings more freewheeling and forward-looking.

The video-streaming of House sessions and digitizing of hearing testimony were already in the works – the House Environment and Transportation Committee was developing a pilot program for paperless testimony, which will be expanded to all committees. But Jones redoubled her commitment to accelerating these reforms.

“This will help the public better engage with the House of Delegates,” she told her colleagues.

Jones made it clear that she will seek Democratic lawmakers’ input on legislation and strategy but will also rely on them to amplify the party’s message during high-profile policy debates.

“My office is the communications arm of the Democratic Caucus and has done a great job of pushing our message in this era of divided government,” she wrote. “Over the last three years, we have successfully used the social media power of the Caucus members to impact the policy discussion across Maryland. To that end, we will send Caucus members press releases early with the expectation that they will remain private until my office releases them so that you will continue to support the message and push it out to your grassroots networks.”

When digesting Jones’ moves, it is important to remember how she became speaker.

She threw her hat into the ring shortly after the April 7 death of Michael E. Busch (D), whom she had served as speaker pro tem for 16 ½ years. Jones then dropped out of the race, concluding that she could not win, and endorsed one of the two leading contenders, House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). When the Democratic Caucus deadlocked between Davis and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), Jones emerged as the compromise choice – and she became the first woman and the first African-American speaker in Maryland history (and just the third black woman to hold the job in any legislature in the U.S.).

In explaining her leadership picks to her colleagues, Jones said her goal was ensuring “a more diverse, inclusive and collaborative process.”

“We will be expanding the outreach of the House leadership team, bringing in more members, more often to provide feedback,” she wrote. “What will not change is our Team First approach started by our Coach, Speaker Mike Busch, that we will continue to improve upon together.”

Something for everyone

Notably, Jones keeps on all the chairmen of the six House standing committees. She also retains House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City).

But with her other picks, Jones seemed to accomplish four things simultaneously: rewarding loyalists; taking care, to a degree, of both visible McIntosh and Davis supporters; adding more diversity to the leadership team; and finding leadership posts for young, ambitious members who are considered rising stars (for the full list, click here).

Before becoming speaker, Jones had three leadership roles of her own: speaker pro tem, chairwoman of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, and chairwoman of the Appropriations Education Subcommittee.

For the pro tem role, Jones selected Del. Sharee Sample-Hughes, the lone Democrat and the lone African-American representing the Eastern Shore in the General Assembly. Sample-Hughes was also, until recently, head of the legislative women’s caucus. She’ll preside over the House whenever Jones is not in the chamber.

For the Capital Budget subcommittee, Jones selected Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-Prince George’s), who also remains as Appropriations vice chairwoman – and was one of the few lawmakers to openly support Jones for speaker when Jones was initially competing with McIntosh and Davis.

Del. Benjamin Barnes (D-Prince George’s) – one of McIntosh’s most vocal supporters during the speaker’s race – will take over the education subcommittee.

For majority leader, Jones selected Del. Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery), who kept the Democratic Caucus together during the deliberations over replacing Busch in his role as caucus chairman. Montgomery County has had an almost uninterrupted string of House majority leaders since the mid-1990’s, which has included John A. Hurson, Kumar P. Barve, Anne R. Kaiser, C. William Frick and Kathleen M. Dumais.

Dumais was majority leader this session, moving over from being vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee for many years. Jones named Dumais to be vice chairwoman of the Economic Matters Committee – a post that became vacant this week with the resignation of Del. Eric Bromwell (D-Baltimore County).

Dumais was also given the thankless but important role of co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

Replacing Luedtke as chairman of the Democratic Caucus will be Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s), who is just 30 years old. From his day job, Lewis has picked up a thing or two about caucus politics on a grander scale: He works for U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Jones told colleagues that the position of assistant majority leader would no longer be appointed by the speaker, but would be elected by the freshman class at the end of the year.

“The position will report directly to the Majority Leader and sit in leadership meetings with me, acting as a conduit for the freshman class during the rest of the term,” she wrote in the memo. “The position will act as a guide and mentor for the first year of the next class of freshman legislators until they elect their own representative at the end of their first year.”

While all of Jones’ other appointments are noteworthy, two seem to carry special significance.

Jones transferred Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D-Harford), whom Busch had stripped of her committee assignment after she was censured by the House for uttering a racial epithet at a social gathering this year, to the Ways and Means Committee. It means Lisanti will not be sidelined during committee action next year – a small step, perhaps, in her political rehabilitation. But she’ll no longer serve on Economic Matters, the panel with the broadest and most heavily-lobbied portfolio.

Meanwhile, for the position of assistant speaker pro tem, Jones has replaced Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, with Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery). While the Black Caucus was a significant player during the speaker election and celebrated Jones’ elevation at a fundraising breakfast earlier this year, Barnes created controversy during the fight to succeed Busch when he questioned why members of the black caucus would support “a white lesbian” – McIntosh – for speaker.

Jones has now replaced Barnes with a white lesbian.

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Analysis: Speaker Jones Speaks