Incoming state Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) wasted no time filling the top slot on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, tapping the panel’s No. 2, Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), as the new chairman.
Ferguson’s decision, announced Wednesday evening, came just one day after the current JPR chairman, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), revealed that he plans to resign before the start of the General Assembly session next month.
The timing and venue of Ferguson’s announcement were fortuitous — Smith had a long-scheduled “welcome home” fundraiser set for Wednesday night at the Civic Center in downtown Silver Spring, following his recent return from an eight-month deployment to Afghanistan with the Naval Reserves.
Ferguson told the crowd that when he learned Zirkin was stepping down, “there was only one name that came to mind about replacing him — and that was Sen. Will Smith.”
The news of Smith’s elevation was the highlight of an emotional and star-studded evening that featured tributes to the 37-year-old lawmaker from some of the state’s most powerful politicians — and an impressive turnout of A list State House lobbyists and community leaders.
Smith represents a dramatic departure from Zirkin at the helm of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, ideologically and stylistically. He’s perceptibly more liberal than Zirkin on several key issues that come before the panel, and while he hasn’t been tested in such a lofty leadership role, he is considered one of the nicest lawmakers in Annapolis.
Smith’s rise to JPR chairman marks one of the fastest political ascensions in recent State House history. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 2014, appointed to fill a vacancy in the Senate in late 2016, became Judicial Proceedings vice chairman at the beginning of this year, and now is about to become chairman.
Ferguson said he bonded with Smith at the beginning of this year when he became vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and the two sat next to each other on the Senate floor. Ferguson said he immediately felt Smith’s loss when Smith was deployed to Afghanistan with a couple of weeks left in this year’s legislative session.
“Just in the few days that Will was away, the place changed,” he said. “You felt something different. And in the Senate, you know that’s the sign of a real leader.”
Also there to offer public praise for Smith were U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), and Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart. U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D) was also scheduled to speak, but he was tied up on Capitol Hill with impeachment hearings and appeared toward the end of Smith’s fundraiser.
Stewart, like many people in the audience during private conversations, recalled the first time she met Smith when he was volunteering for local community organizations. Van Hollen recounted his visit with Smith in Afghanistan earlier this year, when they rode together in a helicopter.
Franchot called Smith “one of the shining lights in Annapolis” and “a breath of fresh air at JPR.” Frosh — himself a former Judicial Proceedings chairman — teased that Smith would one day hold the JPR gavel, seconds before Ferguson made the formal announcement.
“Lawyers are in short supply in Annapolis and good lawyers are in even shorter supply,” Frosh observed.
Despite all the accolades, Smith was modest and introspective, saying he wanted to enlist in the military right after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, when he was a sophomore in college, but was persuaded by his parents to wait. He wound up becoming a commissioned Naval Intelligence officer while attending law school.
Smith said that being overseas over the last several months made him think about the responsibilities that officeholders possess.
“When you go abroad and serve, you think a lot about why you’re serving,” he said, adding that, apart from being away from his wife and small daughter, being in Afghanistan underscored that “your time in office is short.”
Smith did not talk about his agenda as the new Judicial Proceedings chairman. Chances are, like many of the newly ascending Senate leaders, he’ll have to prepare on the fly.
Ferguson said he admires Smith because “he works to improve the lives of families. It’s what motivates him every day.”