It was a history-making Wednesday in Annapolis on the first day of the 441st session of the General Assembly, which kicked off with the state’s first African-American and woman presiding as speaker of the House of Delegates and senators naming the chamber’s first president emeritus.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) will lead their chambers during a season of change in the State House. Jones replaces the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who died unexpectedly just before the end of the 2019 legislative session. In the upper chamber, America’s longest-serving state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), has stepped back from his leadership role as he battles cancer.
A shifting Senate
Miller arrived early to the Senate floor on Wednesday and was sitting alone in his new desk in the back half of the chamber, studying the remarks he planned to give while nominating Ferguson as his successor.
Miller said he chose his seat, three rows from the back wall and between two freshmen lawmakers. He likes to watch floor debates from a distance and wanted to show deference to the new president.
“If [senators] see me in the back of the room, they’ll look to him first rather than myself,” Miller said.
In nominating Ferguson, Miller said he showed the leadership qualities of determination, responsibility, integrity and enthusiasm.
He also joked about Ferguson’s studious reputation.
“He and I went to the same law school. The only difference is I sat in the back row, he sat in the front row. He was raising his hand: ‘Yes professor, yes professor.’ I was just trying to get through. I had a wife and four kids, you know what I mean?” Miller laughed.
Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Harford), who will continue as minority leader in 2020, seconded the nomination in a show of bipartisanship.
“The gentleman that just spoke has incredibly big shoes. He has been an incredible figure in this chamber, probably one of the biggest figures that have ever stood in here. And Bill’s stepping into some big shoes,” Jennings said.
And then he made a quip about Miller’s tenure: “We got to get it right. Because if history shows us, we’re not going to do this again until the year 2053.”
There were other barbs about age ― Ferguson’s youth and Miller’s maturity ― from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“He ran for class president in the fourth grade,” Jennings said of Ferguson. “After that, he got elected to the state Senate.”
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) noted that 175 senators served under Miller’s leadership since 1987.
“The first president of the senate was Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer who served from 1777 to 1780. Very short. The next senate president was also a Thomas: Thomas Vincent Michael Miller Junior,” she said. “…It does seem as though Senator Miller has been Senate president since 1780.”
Klausmeier made the motion to amend Senate rules to bestow the emeritus title upon Miller. The chamber also honored her with the title of senate president pro tem emeritus.
In his first address to the chamber, Ferguson reflected on the Senate’s history, reminding colleagues that their predecessors were Revolutionary and Civil War fighters and that senators have presided over the Industrial Revolution, the space race and other times of radical change.
“This body has to ask itself: What is the most pressing question of our time and how will we work together to fix it?”
Ferguson also stressed his commitment to passing the education reform recommendations of the Kirwan Commission.
“We have far too many schools where the ZIP code, the race, or an individual’s tax bracket determines a child’s life outcome,” he said. “In a great state like Maryland, that is not something that we should expect as normal, or OK. The good news is, we can fix it.”
Leaders on both sides of the aisle stressed a desire to work together this year.
“We’re willing to negotiate and talk,” Jennings said of the multibillion-dollar Kirwan recommendations. “But our caucus has always had the views of low taxes, smaller government and fiscal responsibility.”
Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore), in a speech supporting the nomination of Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) as the new Senate president pro tem, said the chamber has always prided itself in being a deliberative and collaborative body, something he thinks will continue under the new leadership.
“There has always been a certain pride that we are more open minded, more willing to compromise, and we’re willing to do the hard work necessary to reach those consensus bills that are passed 47 to zero,” Hershey said. “Under the new leadership we should all hope that that continues. We have to leave the overly [partisan] policy battles to those in Washington. We have to recognize that none of us are campaigning this year. And that we’re here just to do the work that is meaningful important to all Marylanders.”
History in the House
The House session gaveled in at noon after delegates and their families greeted each other on the floor, taking selfies and making merry as they settled into their seats. Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) delivered the opening prayer, saying that while the chamber still mourned the loss of Busch, “it’s beginning for our speaker and our House.”
When it came time to nominate a House speaker pro tem, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) stood and described a conversation he had at the start of the 2015 session with former Del. Rudolph C. Cane (D-Middle Shore) in which he had been asked to look after Sheree L. Sample-Hughes (D-Middle Shore), a then-freshman delegate from who had succeeded him. Before offering his nomination, Davis said to the chamber that in a phone conversation years later he told Cane “Rudy, your delegate is everything you said she would be.”
Upon her installation, Sample-Hughes received a standing ovation, thanked God and, before delivering her speech to the chamber, left the platform to hand the Bible that she was sworn in on to her mother.
In her address, she thanked her colleagues for their faith in her ability. “I assure you that I will faithfully seek resolutions, uphold principles and the values of the Maryland General Assembly by standing on the strong foundation laid by many,” citing those who served before her, including Cane, who was the first black delegate to represent the Eastern Shore.
Sample-Hughes then introduced guests, including Busch’s family, who received a standing ovation from the chamber.
“Always know you are in our hearts and know we are here with you always,” Sample-Hughes told the family.
Jones was nominated for speaker role by Del. Patrick G. Young Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who described her as “a person whose character requires no embellishment because everyone in this chamber knows her heart, and yet it could easily be mistaken that the phrase ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’ could’ve been authored just for her.”
“You underestimate her at your own peril, my friends,” said Young, chuckling.
Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), seconded the motion and detailed the historical significance of Jones’ nomination, saying that in fairly recent history there would have been a time where it would have been “unfathomable for most of us who sit in this chamber to have been elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.”
“Today we are living history with the nomination before us,” Wilkins said.
Once the new Speaker was escorted to the front of the chamber and sworn in, the room erupted in applause.
“Welcome to the 441st legislative session,” said Jones. “It’s a new year, a new decade and our House members look more like our state than ever before.”
Her speech focused on change in a range of areas, from different priorities to committees receiving testimony electronically, and videostreaming systems intended to modernize the legislative process.
Jones signaled that education is her chief concern.
“This will be the session for Maryland’s children,” she said.
Jones fought back tears as she talked about the work she and the former speaker had done together.
“I worked with Mike for 16 years,” she said, “and together with many of you we built the foundation on which we stand.”
Jones also acknowledged the change in power in the Senate, expressing gratitude to Miller and looking ahead to working with Ferguson.
“I’m ready to continue our work in moving the state forward,” she said. “Are you ready to move forward with me?”
As the chamber filled with applause, Jones closed her speech. “Let’s get it done.”