When the Maryland House of Delegates gaveled out of the 442nd General Assembly session just after midnight on Tuesday, it may very well have been curtains for the House Chamber Annex as well.
For 90 days, half of the House of Delegates called the annex — created by combining the Montgomery County and Baltimore County delegation rooms in the House Office Building — home.
The members cast their votes from iPads, joined in floor debates from a plexiglass booth in the center of the room, and, when called upon to act as floor leader for a bill, sprinted across College Avenue and Lawyers’ Mall, up a back stairwell and into another plexiglass booth off an entrance to the House floor.
“I’ve been completely out of breath when I’ve gotten over there. I’ve had to start debating completely winded, plus the mask,” Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard) laughed.
Despite the technological leaps and learning the quirks of operating from the annex, Atterbeary said she was grateful that the alternate workspace allowed the House to conduct its work safely and without community spread of the virus during the legislative session.
“I was very worried about that, quite frankly, in the beginning,” Atterbeary said. “But I think it’s gone pretty well.”
To divide the chamber in a meaningful way and ensure continuity of the chamber’s operations if there were an outbreak of COVID-19, Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) and the standing committee vice chairs worked from the annex this session, while Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) presided over the chamber where committee chairs sat.
Sample-Hughes said she tried to promote a feeling of togetherness in the annex, “and making sure that they know that their vote and their membership in the House of Delegates is equally as important to the members on the House floor.”
The annex had its own atmosphere – and its own challenges – and lawmakers became close-knit over the course of the session, Sample-Hughes said.
“I’m just so grateful that we were able to get through this. Some other legislatures around the nation, they have found themselves in a different situation, and we’ve been able, thankfully, to get all the way to the end, but still do it in a respectful and safe manner,” Sample-Hughes said.
Del. Brenda Thiam (R-Washington) spent her first legislative session in the annex.
Having been appointed to the General Assembly in October as the first Black Republican female delegate in state history, Thiam then drew her own name first in a lottery to decide seating arrangements in December.
When the members met in the annex for the first floor session in February, Thiam was the first lawmaker to be beamed onto the large video screens on the House floor.
She said she’s looking forward to her first session in the House chamber once the pandemic subsides.
Del. Nick Charles (D-Prince George’s) agreed. He was over in the House chamber for a recent meeting, “and I was just hit by the nostalgia of it over there.”
But some lawmakers said there were benefits to sitting in the annex.
Del. Keith E. Haynes (D-Baltimore City), like many other delegates, joked that the shorter commute – a few paces from the House Office Building elevators – meant they could savor a few extra moments – or sips of coffee – in their offices while chamber-bound members rushed off.
“Coming into the session, facing a global pandemic, I think we all were a little antsy on how everything was going to work,” Haynes said. “But two days into it, even after the first day, everybody acclimated, the systems worked for everyone. You know, it’s different; but it worked.”
Del. Haven N. Shoemaker Jr. (R-Carroll), a frequent visitor to the annex’s communication booth, said he did regret not being able to jump to the microphone as quickly as he could in the permanent chamber.
“The little blue request-to-speak button doesn’t work fast enough,” Shoemaker said. “That’s happened to me a couple of times.”
But, Shoemaker said, said he appreciated the extra shoulder space afforded in the annex.
“I like the space that we have in here. When we’re on top of each other packed in [the chamber] like sardines, it’s not nearly as comfortable,” Shoemaker said. “You know, over here I can kick back and not worry about knocking Delegate Buckel’s coffee over behind me.”