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Government & Politics

Under New Management: ‘There Was Only One Coach,’ Jones Says

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Like any seasoned politician, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) has adorned her office with pictures of famous political personages and other memorabilia.

There’s a photo of Jones with President Obama and another with Michelle Obama. There’s an autographed picture of Jones with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). There’s a copper bust of Abraham Lincoln — a gift from the two top House Republicans shortly after Jones became speaker.

A smaller, more intimate photo of Jones with her predecessor sits behind her desk, at an angle, so the late speaker Michael E. Busch (D) is literally looking over her shoulder.

During his 17 years as speaker, Busch was uniformly and affectionately referred to as “The Coach.” So as Jones prepares for her first General Assembly session as speaker, she’s asked in an interview how she’d describe her brand of leadership.

“I think there was only one coach, and that was Mike Busch,” she replies. Then she pauses. “My leadership style — I just want you to be honest. We should all have the same goals of fixing the problems that citizens face.”

Jones, 65, is nothing if not no-nonsense. Yet she’s quiet, reticent, almost shy. In a business of egomaniacs and extroverts, Jones can be reserved almost to a fault.

But that doesn’t mean that Jones isn’t engaged. She’s constantly sizing people up — and she isn’t afraid to tell her colleagues when they’ve disappointed her.

Running the House of Delegates demands a tremendous amount of discipline and an ability to keep a large and disparate collection of characters in line. Jones may not be a backslapper or full of pep talks. But she does have a keen sense of what her 140 colleagues are thinking.

“People have built-in [B.S.] detectors,” Jones explains. Hers, she believes, is a little stronger than most — a trait she attributes to “my degree in psychology.”

When Jones sat down with Maryland Matters Tuesday afternoon, she was a few hours removed from a 35-minute meeting with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) — just her second, she said, since she became speaker on May 1. And it sounded like she was still trying to size him up.

At their first get-together, which took place just before a bill-signing session and lasted no more than 10 minutes, the two mainly exchanged pleasantries. On Tuesday, Jones said, she told the governor that communication would be paramount to their relationship.

“It was, from my perspective, I don’t like reading things” without a heads-up first, she said. “Communications could be better.”

Hogan, she added, agreed — “in his own way.”

The governor talked a lot about his high ratings in the polls, Jones recounted, and also expressed regrets that he probably would not be able to drop by the opening session of the House Wednesday because the Board of Public Works meeting would probably be taking place at the same time.

“He didn’t want me to think that he was blowing it off,” Jones said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Hogan opened by discussing the “very productive” conversations he’d recently had with Jones and incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and said he was optimistic that the three could find “common ground” during the legislative session.

He joked about suddenly being the most senior of the Big Three leaders in Annapolis, following Busch’s death and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller’s decision to relinquish the gavel after 33 years on the job. Hogan agreed that the dynamic between the executive branch and the legislature would change, but couldn’t predict how.

“We’re all going to work through this together,” he said.

But in almost the next breath, the governor attacked corruption in the legislature and said he would introduce a measure to strengthen ethics laws and increase fines for bribery.

“Sadly, a pervasive culture of corruption continues to exist,” he said.

Jones said Hogan made no mention of his “accountability” play during their conversation.

“Have you seen it?” she asked a reporter about Hogan’s proposal. “We look forward to reading it.”

‘Judge me after this first session’

Jones isn’t just new to the job. She’s also a historic figure — the first woman and first African-American to hold the speaker’s gavel. She’s keenly aware — and so are her colleagues — that as she gazes around the House chamber at the portraits of her predecessors, none look like her.

Jones’ historic status engenders a great deal of goodwill throughout the chamber. So does the collective grief that many lawmakers continue to feel over Busch’s absence — and Jones’ role as the person they chose to carry on and lead them after his death.

At the same time, many lawmakers are energized by Jones’ ascension — and her moves to shake up and diversify the House leadership team.

Jones said she is hoping her gender and race don’t become factors in the calculus of the next 90 days or of her overall tenure as speaker.

“Judge me after this first session — what we have gotten done,” she said.

Jones has no small agenda this year. In addition to support for Kirwan Commission reforms and extra funding for school construction, Jones’ priorities include banning flavored vaping products; background checks for rifle and shotgun purchases; a ban on family members serving as campaign treasurers for political candidates; securing provisions in the Affordable Care Act; and reforming the Public Information Act to make it easier for the public to obtain law enforcement records.

Jones said she is looking forward to the next 90 days — but for a surprising reason. For most lawmakers, the legislative session is the busiest and most intense time of year.

But after eight months of traveling the state, visiting lawmakers’ districts, appearing at fundraisers, and commuting every day to Annapolis from her home in Woodstock, Jones said the ability to cross the street from her State House office to her hotel room over the next 90 days, to read briefing papers and collect her thoughts, will bring welcome relief.

Jones’ main desire is to do something significant and meaningful on education this session — not just for college-bound kids, but for those seeking vocations and a purpose in life.

“To me, every child has something they’re gifted in,” she said. “You just have to home in on it.”

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Under New Management: ‘There Was Only One Coach,’ Jones Says