Senators in Last-Minute Jockeying for Leadership Slots

Sen. Bill Ferguson, left, the presumed next Senate president, at an event last week with state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D). Photo by Josh Kurtz

With the 2020 General Assembly session now less than a month away and the holidays just around the corner, presumptive Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) is expected to fill out his leadership team soon. One lawmaker said this week that Ferguson’s announcements are “imminent.”

A series of retirements and other moves have created an unusual number of mid-term vacancies in key positions — including open vice chair slots on three of the Senate’s four standing committees.

The man Senate Democrats turned to in October to take over for long-serving President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) has been pondering how best to take advantage of the opportunities he now has to reshape the chamber’s leadership for the upcoming session and beyond.

Two Baltimore-area lawmakers who serve in leadership — Shirley Nathan-Pulliam and Robert A. Zirkin — have recently announced that they are leaving the General Assembly. He has served as chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee; she was vice chairwoman of Education, Health and Environmental Affairs.

At a welcome home event for Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) — a Naval Reserve intelligence officer just back from Afghanistan —  in Silver Spring last week, Ferguson announced that Smith, the JPR vice chairman, would take Zirkin’s place. But that leaves the number two spot on Judicial Proceedings open.

In addition, Ferguson served as second in command on the Budget and Taxation Committee last year. So that’s another vacancy he must fill.

In addition, there is the majority leader post that came open when Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), who backed Ferguson’s leadership bid, was elevated to take over for Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) as chairman of the powerful Budget & Taxation Committee, a development not yet official but reported by Maryland Matters in November.

The Maryland Matters story reported that King was poised to become majority leader, an account confirmed by Montgomery Community Media last week.

As he considers his options, Ferguson is keeping qualifications, gender, race and geography in mind.

Assuming that no Republicans get chosen for leadership posts, the vice-chairmanship on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee would appear to be a race between Sens. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) and Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick).

In an interview, Lam noted that he is the only physician in the Senate. He said his science background and his teaching work would likely be helpful to the committee.

“It’s been a real pleasure to be able to present a health care perspective to many of the challenges that we see and face and try to address,” said Lam, a member of the faculty at Johns Hopkins University Medical School.

Nathan-Pulliam was a registered nurse, while EHEA Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) was a retired educator — so together they represented major parts of the committee’s portfolio.

Both Kagan and Young are also said to be interested in serving as vice chair.

“I’m looking forward to the new dynamics of the Senate chamber,” Kagan said. “Bill Ferguson is thoughtful and collaborative, and will be making changes that honor the past and yet set us on a new course.”

Young said he expects the EHEA vice-chairmanship to go to a female legislator. “I’ve really enjoyed the committee and I have a strong background in many of the areas there,” he said in an interview. “If I’m not going to be vice-chair… I’m thinking about trying another committee.”

The other option open to Ferguson is to move a veteran legislator from another committee to EHEA to serve as number two behind Pinsky.

As for the vice-chairmanship of JPR, Ferguson has three options if he wants a lawyer and a Democrat who currently serves on the committee in the post — Sens. Jill P. Carter (Baltimore City), Susan C. Lee (Montgomery) or Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery).

Carter is currently running in the special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.). Lee is in her second term in the Senate while Waldstreicher is in his first, though both previously had long careers in the House.

Sens. Cory V. McCray (Baltimore City) and Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery) are considered possible choices to serve as vice-chair of B&T, with Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (Anne Arundel) another conceivable option. Zucker is personally close to Guzzone.

The Senate will have two newcomers early next year, after the Democratic Central Committees in Baltimore City and Baltimore County vote on replacements for Zirkin and Nathan-Pulliam.

In Baltimore County, Dels. Shelly L. Hettleman and Jon S. Cardin are seeking the appointment to replace Zirkin.

The scramble to replace Nathan-Pulliam is trickier because the Baltimore City and Baltimore County central committees each get to make a recommendation, and if they differ, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) gets to select one. Dels. Charles Sydnor III of Baltimore County and Keith J. Haynes of Baltimore City are expected to seek the appointment.

In addition, Miller needs a committee assignment. It is assumed he will be assigned either to Budget and Tax, where he could push for added Kirwan Commission funding and keep a watchful eye on University of Maryland finances, or to Judicial Proceedings — which he led as chairman in the 1980’s before taking over as Senate president in 1987.

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