Lawmakers Assemble Suggested Reading List for Colleagues, Aspiring Leaders

"The Power Broker," by Robert A. Caro, rises to the top as a must-read for political leaders. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

First of two parts

Most politicians aren’t usually at a loss for words.

But when a new colleague asked Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) a couple of years ago for suggestions on things he should read to prepare for life in the General Assembly, Korman didn’t know how to respond.

“I didn’t have an immediate answer, which was a little embarrassing to me,” Korman recalled in a recent interview.

Korman is a bibliophile, someone who is known to read just about anything. And as he pondered the question, he turned to a friend and colleague who is also a voracious reader, particularly books about government, politics and leadership — state Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City). The two young lawmakers — Korman is 39, McCray is 38 — entered the House of Delegates together in 2015 and have been trading books since before they were even elected.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

“We both know that the best experience [for incoming legislators] is to just get out there and swim,” McCray said. “But sometimes I think I’d be able to see things a little more clearly if I was able to read about something similar.”

The two men had heard about a retired Navy admiral and former NATO supreme commander, James G. Stavridis, who had written several books — including a 2017 tome called “The Leader’s Bookshelf,” which is essentially a recommended reading list of 50 books for aspiring leaders.

“Perhaps the single best way a leader can learn and grow is through reading,” Stavridis has said.

With that in mind, Korman and McCray wondered if they could emulate Stavridis and put together a suggested reading list for colleagues, prospective legislators and other political leaders. So they decided to first go to the source: Stavridis himself.

“He was very responsive and excited by this,” Korman said. The admiral suggested how they might go about calling upon experts to help them compile their list. And given his own knowledge of Maryland, as a Naval Academy graduate and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University of Applied Physics, he had a recommendation of his own — “Chesapeake,” James A. Michener’s sweeping novel covering 400 years of Eastern Shore history.

So McCray and Korman set about asking an array of contacts — fellow officeholders, policy experts, political operatives, legislative staffers and advocates — to help them compile their list.

The people the lawmakers asked for advice, McCray said, “are students of this game — people trying to master their craft.”

Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City).

The two lawmakers got to work in late spring and early summer and now, with the help of friends and contacts, they’ve compiled their recommendations. They’ve broken their list into five broad categories — and have supplied the list, including comments they received from those they asked to make recommendations — to Maryland Matters.

“The response was overwhelming and a number of the same recommendations came multiple times,” Korman and McCray wrote in a short introduction to the list. “The list generated a broad range of offerings in each category and we have come away with many additions to our personal reading lists. We also made our own picks.”

Here is the list, as supplied by McCray and Korman:

General Leadership

“Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” by Condoleezza Rice.

“This is the riveting story of a young African American woman growing-up in Birmingham, Ala., amidst the turbulent and harsh violence of the Jim Crow south. Secretary Rice tells the story of how segregation, tragedy, and a loving family shape her experiences as she earns a PhD in international affairs and political science, serves as provost of Stanford University, and rises to serve three presidents in the area of international affairs and national security, and ultimately becomes the U.S. Secretary of State.” – Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City)

“The Gatekeepers,” by Chris Whipple.

“Simultaneously I served in the Legislature while still serving as a staffer to [U.S. Rep.] Steny Hoyer. This provided a unique perspective on the value of: 1) having good staff; 2) listening to them; 3) treating them fairly. Having the opportunity to work with Steny Hoyer in the Congress and [the late speaker] Mike Busch in the House of Delegates underscored that both leaders succeeded by valuing their staffs and trusting their colleagues who serve as an extended team of advisors.” – Former Del. John Bohanan.

The book was also recommended by lobbyist Lisa Harris Jones and Alexandra M. Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and formerly Busch’s chief of staff. “Each chapter on a modern presidential chief of staff. I’m obligated to list this one, right?” Hughes said.

“Grant,” by Ron Chernow.

“We know Ulysses S. Grant, as commanding general of the Union armies in the Civil War, led us to victory and saved the Union, but Chernow’s book highlights a number of the experiences, battles and people that shaped Grant for success on the battlefield and in the presidency. It’s worth noting that Chernow is also the author of the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical.” – Cory McCray.

The book was also recommended by former state Sen. Andrew Serafini (R-Washington).

“Harold, the People’s Mayor: The Biography of Harold Washington,” by Dempsey Travis.

“Mayor Washington was well ahead of his time. His election as the first Black mayor of Chicago was a stunning win over longtime Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine and the bitter feelings that lingered against racial integration and progress. His election was inspirational and heartening. His service coincided with President Obama’s time as a community organizer, and he has been credited a number of times by Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama for his leadership and being the spark that ignited their fire for public service. Unfortunately, his life was cut short during his second term in office but, he leaves a bright and substantive legacy that should inform us and our work today.” – Cory McCray

“The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro.

“[A] timeless classic about public administration, rather than public policy, but trying to separate the two is folly. It’s from another state, and another era, but the insights into power and authority and influence among public sector actors make it a riveting read for pretty much anyone who’d get past the headline of this exercise.” – Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Also recommended by Alex Hughes: “My first experience with Caro, and my copy is still annotated,” she said. “Prepare yourself for 1,000+ pages but the history of politics as we know it today is reflected in every page: how to interact with the press; making policy decisions; what members of the public get engaged in the process and which ones don’t; the power of vision; and the hubris of leaders that sometimes overtakes the best intentions.”

And recommended by Cory McCray: “As you may know, Robert Caro is the author of the multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He takes the same care to chronicle the life of Robert Moses, the New York planner. It’s a thick book on one man’s journey to use his positions and power to direct the life and community of New York City using its built environment.”

“The Prince,” by Machiavelli.

“A good leader (or a good person) must have ideals, goals, priorities, and be true to him or herself about them. But to realize them you have to understand those of your colleagues and opponents as well. I have always thought Machiavelli a much misunderstood and underestimated writer. He seeks to strip the illusion away and urges a would-be leader to see human nature as it is (or as he saw if). I believe his guidance often rings true, albeit depressing, after more than 500 years, (e.g., ‘A man is quicker to forget the loss of his Father than of his patrimony’, from ‘The Prince.’). Listen carefully to what others are actually saying and don’t just assume you know what’s in their minds.” – state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D)

“Profiles in Courage,” by Senator John F. Kennedy.

“A real classic. A copy was given to me by a colleague who sent it to me, along with a very nice note, after I’d taken a difficult vote on an issue. [Fellow legislator] Craig Zucker gave it to me and it was before Marriage Equality.” – John Bohanan.

Also recommended by Nancy Kopp: “Have to remember why we’re here and it’s not just to win reelection.”

“Overcoming the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Women,” by Freeman A. Hrabowski.

– Recommended by Speaker Adrienne Jones

“Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“Have to both understand your colleagues/adversaries (Machiavelli) and then learn how to bring them to your side and keep them all within the same tent.” – Nancy Kopp

Also recommended by Mark Wasserman, former senior vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System and House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).

“Theodore Rex,” by Edmund Morris.

“Second book in a series about Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, different party than me, but a great president who ushered in conservation policies and helped to create millions of acres of parks and forests. Roosevelt was a true environmentalist who left office when he was only 50 years old. During the COVID respite, many have re-discovered the great values of having strong policies to support the environment, open spaces and parks. This book has rich historical detail, but his leadership on these issues still stands as a guidepost for legislators today.” – John Bohanan

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee.

– Recommended by U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D)

“Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family,” by Gary M. Pomerantz.

“This is the story of how two mayors, Ivan Allen and Maynard Jackson, guided Atlanta through fractured times while breaking down barriers that limited its future and opportunity to create a modern and international city that thrives for all people. The book details both mayors’ families’ and personal histories for the reader to gain a deeper understanding of their personal journey and principals.” – Cory McCray

General Politics and History

“The Agenda,” by Bob Woodward.

“This book was written in 1994, and focuses on the first year of the Clinton presidency during which Clinton pushed his economic recovery plan. The book describes the conflict between the deficit reduction priority and increased spending on social programs/middle class tax cuts. I re-read the book recently and appreciated that the economic choices faced back then are similar to those we face today. The book is process heavy — and I admit that I place ‘All the President’s Men’ as my favorite Woodward book because reading it as a teenager helped fuel my passion for politics and law. I put ‘The Agenda’ on this list because of the insight it shows of an elected official facing reality while trying to fulfill campaign promises.” – Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly

“Barbara Jordan: American Hero,” by Mary Beth Rogers.

“Congresswoman Jordan’s tenacity and hard work propelled her to succeed well beyond the glass ceilings that sought to limit her because of her race and gender. She rose in the Texas Senate, serving as the first African American woman among a majority of white men, and was then elected the first African American woman to Congress from Texas. She was an excellent orator, teacher, and leader. Her story chronicles her life and experiences as the U.S.’ attitudes on race and gender evolved.” – Cory McCray

“Charged,” by Emily Bazelon.

“Although ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson remains one of the books of the decade, this compendium gives some detailed context to the underbelly of plea bargaining, discovery and structural improvements to the criminal justice system with a summary of possible program ideas at the end of the book.” – Stuart Simms, attorney, former secretary at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and former state’s attorney for Baltimore City

“Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

— Recommended by Maggie McIntosh

“The Fifth Risk,” by Michael Lewis.

“This book outlines the danger of incompetent government leadership and persuasively makes the case for the critical missions of a good government workforce. Lewis describes the ‘fifth risk’ as ‘the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.’” – Sandy Brantley

“First Person Political,” by Grant Reeher.

“A book focused on examinations of legislators as people and politicians and what drives and inhibits their effectiveness.” – Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany)

“Founding Brothers and Quartet,” by Joseph Ellis.

“Revolutionary War background and historical perspective that is missed in most historical accounts. The rivalry between Jefferson and Adams that points to the beginning of partisan politics could be ripped out of the current headlines.” – Andy Serafini

“Master of the Senate,” by Robert Caro.

– Recommended by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City). Also recommended by Marc Korman: “Delegate Rosenberg did not explain but he is also Professor Rosenberg and teaches a course of the legislature. This is the textbook.”

“Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” by David Maraniss.

“Must read for anyone who loves a city: about the rise and fall of a city that was at the heart of this country – and what led to its fall.” –Alex Hughes

“Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution,” by Richard Beenman.

“One of the most detailed looks at the triumphs and the flaws of the development of the Constitution.” – Jason Buckel

“Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” by George Plunkitt.

“Because it’s the most rudimentary style of don’t care about the public good politics, graft, and corruption — and it’s time tested. These practices still exist.” –Melanie L. Wenger, director of Intergovernmental Relations, Montgomery County

Also recommended by Nancy Kopp: “This book can punch the balloon of any politician.”

“A Political Education,” by Harry McPherson.

– Recommended by U.S. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)

Public Policy

“American Apartheid,” by Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton.

“This book was written in 1993 but is still recommended reading on how segregated communities, public schools, and access to government was and continues to be.” – Alex Hughes

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“Outlines what is wrong with the world of higher education in today colleges. A powerful read for anyone interested in what has caused the fragility of today’s youth and aggressive nature of other millennials.” – Andy Serafini

“Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” by Sam Quinones.

– Recommended by Maggie McIntosh

“The Empowered University,” by Freeman Hrabowski, with Philip Rous and Peter Henderson.

– Recommended by former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D)

“Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” by Conor Dougherty.

“Centered in the Bay area, a contemporary view on housing challenges today.” – Michael Sanderson

“The Hidden Cost of Federal Tax Policy,” by Jason Fichtner and Jacob Feldman.

– Recommended by Jason Buckel

“The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander.

“This is a deep dive into the systems and policies put into place to halt the progress of African Americans following the Civil War and during the 20th Century. The discussion pays particular attention to the modern mechanisms that are currently in place and limit the progress and opportunities of black people in our country.” – Cory McCray

“The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” by Chakravorty, Kapur and Singh.

“Maryland will continue to deal with immigration issues and technology and that makes this worth reading. This is a fascinating book about a very successful group of immigrants to the U.S. since an immigration policy was changed in the 1960s. The Indian diaspora is omnipresent in Maryland and is becoming more engaged politically with each election which makes them a demographic worth knowing and understanding. In Maryland, residents of Indian origin are found in great numbers in the fields of medicine, technology, business and finance, etc. and, increasingly, they are key advisors and influencers in public policy decisions. Their successes also run counter to the present day denigration of immigrants by many elected officials.” – John Bohanan

“Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Ibram Kendi.

“This is an intense and necessary read on the foundations of racist ideas that were put into place to deconstruct black communities. One of the strongest, if not best, reads to explain the national movement that is happening now in response to police brutality, poor education systems, and the many other social issues that plague African American communities. Most important of all are the solutions discussed to move forward.” – Cory McCray

“Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading Systems,” by Marc Tucker.

“Tucker is the President/Founder of the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE). NCEE was one of the consultants to the Kirwan Commission. I first met Marc back in 2014 when [then-Sen.] Rich Madaleno and I were part of an international study group that NCSL convened to look at why U.S. students are not performing better on international assessments called PISA compared to developed and developing countries in the world. I would call ‘Surpassing Shanghai’ required reading for anyone who wants to better understand how the U.S. education system got to where it is now, how to improve it, and how this laid the foundation for the Kirwan Commission recommendations, now known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.” – Rachel Hise, principal policy analyst, Maryland Department of Legislative Services

“Taming the Sun,” by Varun Sivarim.

“Nominally about solar energy, but larger undertones connecting to climate change and carbon usage generally.” – Michael Sanderson

“Within Our Reach,” by Lisbeth Schorr.

“She demonstrates so well how to analyze problems, draw commonalities and apply solutions. She has many successors, but she was a ground-breaker. We used her work to reform parts of Maryland social services in the 1980s.” – Nancy Kopp

Maryland-specific Politics and History

“Adventurous Lady: Margaret Brent of Maryland,” by Dorothy Grant.

“A book written for grade school level, but it succinctly tells the story of a powerful Maryland colonist who is one of America’s earliest suffragists. Unfortunately, there are few books about her, but this one captures the highlights of her extraordinary life. She demanded a vote in the Colonial Assembly based on the fact that she owned property here (near my home in St. Mary’s City). During her time in the early Maryland Colony, she amassed incredible power and performed many of the important tasks of running the Colony, while men like her brother held the big titles! It reminds me of one of my early lessons in politics, when someone told me ‘if you want something done, get the women to do it — the men just like to jawbone all day.’” –John Bohanan

“Heavy Lifting: The Job of the American Legislature,” by Alan Rosenthal.

“All of his books are terrific. Alan, the head of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers for many years, was THE expert on state legislatures. It was because of his work at the request of Maryland’s legislative leadership in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that our General Assembly has the committee structure and outstanding nonpartisan central staff that serves us so well.” – Nancy Kopp

Also recommended by Warren Deschenaux, former executive director of the Maryland Department of General Services, and Del. Sandy Rosenberg.

“I’ll Never Forget It: Memoirs of a Political Accident from East Baltimore,” by Marvin Mandel.

– Recommended by Victoria L. Gruber, executive director, Maryland Department of General Services

“Maryland: A Middle Temperament,” by Robert J. Brigger.

— Recommended by Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s)

“The Maryland Board of Public Works: A History,” by Alan Wilner.

“In many ways, Maryland’s government is structured like the traditional three branches at the federal level and in other states. And people are people and relationships are relationships wherever you go. But Maryland has some nuances including its Executive-driven budget and, notably, a virtual ‘third and a half’ branch of government in the powerful Board of Public Works. Wilner’s book is about the history of the BPW in various permutations up to 1983. Although it predates the BPW’s current politics, this is still an invaluable resource to understand what The Washington Post called a ‘mini-legislature.’” – Marc Korman

“Maryland Politics and Government: Democratic Dominance,” by John T. Willis and Herb Smith.

“This is a deep dive into Maryland’s political history and legislative entanglements. It’s co-written by former Secretary of State and University of Baltimore professor, John T. Willis.” – Cory McCray

“The Maryland State Constitution,” by Dan Friedman.

“This is more of a reference book than many others on the list but it is important for those working in and around the Maryland General Assembly to understand all the nuances of Maryland state constitutional law. There is no better guide than Dan Friedman, currently a Court of Special Appeals Judge but previously the Assistant Attorney General assigned to the Maryland General Assembly.” – Marc Korman

“My Life and Times,” by Verda F. Welcome as told to James M. Abraham.

“Verda Welcome served as the first African American women in the Maryland Senate and chronicles her experience earning the position and succeeding in the role. This book details Senator Welcomes’ journey in the legislature and the streets of Baltimore City.” – Cory McCray

“My Unexpected Journey: The Autobiography of Harry Roe Hughes,” by Harry Hughes and John W. Frece.

– Recommended by Vicki Gruber

“Under the Dome: The Maryland General Assembly in the 20th Century.”

“The Maryland General Assembly prides itself on its history, including having the oldest in use statehouse. But the legislature as we know it today was largely informed by the 20th century where the basic 90-day, small volume of committee, [slowly] increased diversity, and other traits began to emerge. ‘Under the Dome’ tells that story of change.” – Marc Korman

“William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography,” by C. Fraser Smith.

“This is the story of the rise of Governor William Donald Schaefer. Fraser Smith chronicles his journey from southwest Baltimore to City Councilman, Mayor, and finally state Comptroller, and the puzzles he pieces together along the way.” – Cory McCray.

Also recommended by lobbyist Sean Malone.

“Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice,” by Larry Gibson.

“My father grew up in the same neighborhood and was a little boy when his first cousin went into a law practice with the eventual Supreme Court justice. Professor Gibson’s book gives me a window in to what my father’s life may have been like as a child but also demonstrates how Black neighborhoods at the time gave so much life to future generations.” – Alex Hughes

Regional Understanding

“The Beautiful Struggle,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

– Recommended by Maggie McIntosh

“Black Power in the Suburbs: The Myth or Reality of African American Suburban Political Incorporation,” by Valerie C. Johnson.

“If you want to understand the roots of today’s political Prince George’s County, this book is a great start.” – Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s)

“Chesapeake,” by James Michener.

“James Michener’s classic. In it he covers 400 years of history around that big and beautiful bay. There’s a fair amount of the story of Virginia as well of course but as you know better than I those two really go together and is part of the story of Maryland.” –Admiral Stavridis.

Also recommended by Maggie McIntosh and Michael Sanderson

“Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of the Vanishing Tangier Island,” by Earl Swift.

“Although this is about Tangier Island in Virginia, the perspectives are similar to many Maryland Bay communities such as Smith Island, which are likewise threatened by rising waters brought on by climate change.” – Sandy Brantley

“The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton,” by Lucille Clifton.

“Although she was born in New York, Clifton lived and taught in St. Mary’s and in Columbia. She was the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1979 to 1985. Her poems are understated in style — lacking capitalization and punctuation) but jarring and powerful in voice and meaning. Consider ‘Won’t You Celebrate With Me’: ‘Come celebrate/with me that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and has failed.’ And these lines from ‘September Song,’ written after 9/11: “some of us know we have never felt safe/all of us Americans weeping/as some of us have wept before.” Many of her poems also have a touch of humor, such as ‘homage to my hips.'” – Sandy Brantley

“Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance.

“It’s difficult to find a good book about a region of our State that isn’t, well, boring unless you’re from there — and I say this with great respect to the authors or many fine works that have been written about the rich heritage of our ‘America in miniature.’ Therefore, I recommend a fascinating book that is being released as a Ron Howard directed NETFLIX movie in November. This book is set in Appalachia and it tells a story that resonates with some parts of our state as it attempts to explain how Donald Trump won over traditional Democratic voters in rural parts of America. The issues covered in this book are relevant to anyone who really wants to understand rural life and see a glimpse of the struggles of modern rural America. Although Maryland’s rural life does not typically have the abject poverty portrayed in this book, it does give you a peek into rural life and how frustration has caused a shift in political loyalties even here in Maryland. The issues and frustrations of rural folks end up rooted in the same core challenges that face our urban pockets of poverty. Worth reading to see if you draw the same conclusions that I did — you can’t just assume these are just ignorant people and that there’s no hope in helping them.” – John Bohanan

“Not In My Neighborhood,” by Antero Pietila.

“A study of how redlining and zoning impacted and reinforced racism in the City. I grew up not in Baltimore, but in Chicago, but it certainly rings true to me and reminds me of neighborhood issues of my youth.” – Nancy Kopp.

Also recommended by Kurt Schmoke and Maggie McIntosh.

“Suburb,” by Royce Hanson.

“Hanson is a legendary political figure in Montgomery County. Although he was never elected to political office despite multiple attempts, he served as Planning Board chair for three terms, with a 25-year break between two of them. His book tells the story of planning politics and policy in Montgomery County from the establishment of the Planning Board structure up to the present. The land use theory is all there but so are the political regimes and conflicts that created Montgomery County. When I first ran for office a different former Planning Board Chair traced every political dispute in the county back to a particular County Executive race. I don’t think that Rosetta Stone for all political disagreements exists, but Hanson’s framing shows how the disputes of the past still exist today.” – Marc Korman

“The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” by Wes Moore

– recommended by Vicki Gruber

“The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake,” by John Wennersten.

– recommended by Vicki Gruber

“They Call Me Little Willie: The Life Story of William L. Adams,” by Mark Cheshire.

“This is the story of an early Black venture capitalist from Baltimore City who influenced business and politics in ways unimaginable at the time.” – Cory McCray

COMING THURSDAY: The runners-up on the Korman-McCray essential reading list.

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Josh Kurtz
Founding Editor Josh Kurtz is a veteran chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He was an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, for eight years, and for eight years was the editor of E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill. For 6 1/2 years Kurtz wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz regularly gives speeches and appears on TV and radio shows to discuss Maryland politics.