For the last three days in Annapolis, a well-choreographed pas de trois has unfolded in the Maryland State House. The two houses of the General Assembly have passed bills up, down and around as they’ve tussled with the governor’s office over dozens of votes on vetoed bills and proposed congressional district boundaries.
It’s a lively and rare December special session of the legislature.
And rarer still because it is believed to be the first General Assembly session in which the chiefs of staff for the speaker of the House, Senate president, and governor are all women.
The August appointment of Sally Robb to lead Senate staff completed the trifecta. Alexandra M. Hughes has been chief of staff in the speaker’s office since 2015.
Both the House and Senate have had women chiefs of staff before; Amelia Chassé Alcivar, who rejoined the governor’s staff in October 2020 after a stint with the Republican Governors Association, is thought to be the first-ever women gubernatorial chief of staff in state history.
“I wish it wasn’t historic,” said Chassé Alcivar, who would be just as pleased to be the second, third, fourth or 10th woman to hold her role in the governor’s office. “…But if seeing women in these types of leadership positions — the chiefs of staff, the presiding officers, cabinet secretaries — if that kind of inspires even one young girl to see the full range of career options before them … that’s something that I’d be really proud of.”
Chassé Alcivar, Hughes and Robb spoke briefly this week about their simultaneous tenures as chiefs of staff.
“I hadn’t really reflected on this. I appreciate the moment to reflect on the opportunity,” Robb said, during an interview in the Senate lounge this week.
She is the first Black woman to serve as the top staffer for a Maryland Senate president; Hughes is the first woman of color to become chief of staff in the House, and now she’s serving the first Black woman speaker.
“There have always been very accomplished, capable, smart women who are able to do these jobs, but it takes, I think, special leaders to put them into these jobs,” Hughes said.
Chassé Alcivar, Hughes and Robb, while they find themselves on opposite ends of policy or procedural disagreements from time to time, said they have an underlying respect for each other and a desire to govern efficiently.
“I think Amelia and I cut from the same cloth of die-hard loyalty to our principle – and brass balls to go with it,” Hughes said. “We also have a mutual respect of each other.”
Chassé Alcivar pointed to a successful effort last year to quickly identify top leaders’ priorities for federal stimulus spending and incorporate the plan into ongoing budget negotiations.
“We all know we have a job to do, and that our goals and interests may not always align. But I think we’re all pretty straight shooters with each other,” she said.
Robb also said there was common ground to be found when it comes to Maryland’s pandemic response. Over the summer, she and the governor’s office coordinated a joint appearance of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore city) at a vaccine clinic in the city.
Robb credited state employees with helping drive the state’s pandemic response.
“They have worked tirelessly. What I’ve always known, but what continues to strike me, is that dedication [of] our public servants,” she said.
All three women said the exciting — and exhausting — part of the job is the unpredictability of managing government offices with expansive budgets and employees.
“You’re always on call. You always have to be ready for something that, when you get up in the morning, you don’t anticipate,” Hughes said.
She described the chief of staff job as “throwing a lot of balls into the air and making sure that few, if any, drop.”
During a decade-plus tenure in the speaker’s office, she has witnessed myriad changes in personnel and politics in the State House.
“Generally, I think you can see from the changing of the legislature and the changing as a lobbying corps that it’s not necessarily the sorta old-school boys network down here as much anymore,” Hughes said.