10 Lawmakers to Watch This Legislative Session (Plus Mike Miller)

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

At the start of every General Assembly session, every member of the House and Senate has a measure of say. But traditionally, as the 90-day session proceeds, power is concentrated in the hands of a precious few.

That doesn’t mean that it’s imperative to be in a top leadership position to have an impact on the legislative sausage-making. Lawmakers can affect a session not only with the bills they bring, but by what they do during the 90 days in Annapolis, and their ability to sway an argument.

With both chambers under new management, how radically is the dynamic going to change? Will the institution become more democratic — with power less centralized? Those are key questions as the House and Senate gavel in at noon Wednesday.

With that in mind, here are 11 lawmakers who bear watching in 2020. Some are obvious — like the new presiding officers in the Senate and House. Others, less so.

Incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City): He’ll get the gavel officially Wednesday a little after noon, and the tests will start almost immediately. With his longtime and venerated predecessor sitting just a few feet away, Ferguson will be presiding over a chamber that is undergoing rapid change, and whose Democratic members want badly to be a stronger counterpoint to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). Ferguson has a vision for where he wants to take the Senate, but he’s also a strategic thinker and a very good listener. It will be an altogether different style and a different feel from the way the Senate has been run for the prior 33 years. When Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) first became Senate president, Ferguson was 3 years old.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County): Like Ferguson, Jones takes over from a long-serving icon, the late speaker Michael E Busch (D). But unlike Ferguson, Jones is not a newcomer to House leadership. She served as Busch’s understudy for the entirety of his 17-year tenure as speaker, and also held powerful powerful posts on the Appropriations Committee. Stylistically, Jones represents a huge change from Busch, and of course, she’s making history twice, as the first African-American and first woman to possess the gavel. But institutionally, Jones may represent less of a departure than Ferguson. She’ll run a tight ship, and she won’t brook disorganization or dissent.

Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery): The new chairman of this powerful and busy committee couldn’t be more different than his predecessor, former Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County). Smith represents the most progressive legislative district in the state, and his priorities and voting record during his short time in Annapolis reflect that. Zirkin represented a more conventional suburban district — one with a heavily Jewish population, where residents seem increasingly comfortable voting Republican in certain statewide elections. This probably won’t be the year Smith exerts a ton of pressure on his colleagues on behalf of his agenda, but that day is coming. He’s already likely to make a huge difference on a range of issues, from criminal justice reform, to immigration, to death with dignity, to the state parole system, to asbestos litigation.

Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City): Newly-assigned to the Environment & Transportation Committee  and with a new subcommittee gavel in hand, Lierman is poised to play a huge role in this session, especially on environmental matters. She’s sponsoring several key green bills, including a statewide ban on plastic bags. And speaking of green, if she shows a big fundraising haul in the forthcoming campaign finance reports, as many people expect, the buzz will get a little louder about Lierman possibly seeking statewide office in 2022.

House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery): Newly elevated to this position by Jones, Luedtke, who has never been afraid to take on Hogan, will now have a bigger and more prominent role. Expect him to become a major counterpoint to the governor as the legislature debates education reforms and spending enhancements.

Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County): West does not adhere to Republican orthodoxy. He is the rare lawmaker who gets high marks from both the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and the business group Maryland Free — and middling grades from the American Conservative Union. It’s always interesting to see West work bills and collaborate with his colleagues — he’s always looking for Democratic partners. This year, he will be the prime Senate sponsor of legislation designed to phase out the state’s remaining coal plants.

Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard): For decades, Senate Democratic leaders have moved cautiously on many pieces of legislation in order not to imperil moderate Democrats from conservative districts like Hester. There used to be a number of moderate and potentially vulnerable Democrats in the Senate chamber, but now, for all intents and purposes, there’s just Hester. How will she vote on the Kirwan reforms and spending bills? What will Senate leaders do to try to protect her? What bills will she work to put her in good standing with her Howard and Carroll County constituents? She is a talented lawmaker walking a tightrope.

Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s): The House’s happy warrior gains more power and prestige in a House that’s moving to the left, and Jones will surely remember Peña-Melnyk’s impassioned plea on her behalf when the Democratic caucus was meeting on May Day to discuss a successor to Busch. Look for Peña-Melnyk to play huge roles yet again on debates over health care and immigration, among other issues.

Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford): The fact that he talks more on the Senate floor than anyone who isn’t the Senate president or a committee chairman — maybe more, in some cases — means Cassilly cannot be ignored, at any rate. But as his colleagues place a renewed emphasis on fighting crime this legislative session, Cassilly is poised to play a prominent role. He’s a key supporter of Hogan’s attempts to enact stiffer sentences for violent criminals, and has also been highly critical of Democratic lawmakers and prosecutors who he believes have been too lenient on perpetrators for too long.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery): The Board of Public Works appears set to approve Hogan’s proposed compromise for widening Interstate 270 and other highways. Could the proposal run into problems in the legislature? If it does, Korman, as chairman of the transportation subcommittee on the Appropriations panel and one of the legislature’s leading advocates for public transit, seems a likely candidate to offer barbed criticisms of the governor’s plan — and well-reasoned arguments for possible alternatives.

Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert): What happens when the longest-serving state Senate president in U.S. history steps back to become a rank-and-file member, albeit one with the fancy title of Senate President Emeritus? It’s a first for Maryland, that’s for sure. Miller appears to be looking forward to his new role. But old habits die hard — not just Miller’s, but those of the senators who have been brought along through the years by his leadership. Does he let Ferguson do his thing? Or does he unintentionally meddle? Miller has the loyalty of every last member in the Senate chamber. Let’s see how he uses it.

Danielle E. Gaines and Bruce DePuyt contributed to this article.

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