Former state Del. Sheila Hixson (D), a political trailblazer who became one of the most influential women in Annapolis at a time when there weren’t many, died Sunday at the age of 89.
Her death was announced Monday by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D) and the four state lawmakers in Montgomery County’s District 20, which Hixson represented for 43 years.
No cause of death was given, though the ex-lawmaker was in declining health in recent years. She died in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where she lived with one of her daughters.
Hixson was the longest-serving woman in the history of the General Assembly, and was chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from 1993 to 2017. She was one of the most progressive members of the General Assembly when Democratic moderates were dominant, but she was also a political pragmatist, who began waging uphill policy fights only when she knew she had a chance of winning.
“All of the progressive issues in the state of Maryland, all started with Sheila Hixson,” the late House Speaker Mike Busch (D) said during a tribute to Hixson in 2017, when she announced she would not seek another term.
Through the years, Hixson became known for her successful battles to pass gun control laws, expand gay rights, boost funding for public schools, and make Maryland’s tax laws fairer. She was also a staunch defender of the environment and of immigrants’ rights.
“We are grateful for her impassioned life of service and her enduring contributions to the dynamic political culture of District 20, where her Breakfast Club was always the center of the action, the good-government politics of Montgomery County and progressive legislative change in the state of Maryland,” Raskin, state Sen. William Smith (D-Montgomery) and Dels. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), David Moon (D-Montgomery) and Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery) said in their statement announcing Hixson’s death. “Sheila believed in the power of government to be an instrument of common prosperity and the agent of excellent constituent service. She listened to and valued the voice of the people.”
Hixson was a lifelong Democratic activist who moved to the Washington, D.C., area from Michigan with her family in the 1960s. She quickly became involved with national and local Democratic politics, and when a vacancy opened in the House of Delegates in early 1976, she was appointed to the position. She was subsequently reelected nine times.
During an era when women were only beginning to take on positions of power, Hixson ingratiated herself with a generation of male House leaders in Annapolis, impressing them with her political skills and resolve, and was rewarded by then-Speaker Clay Mitchell (D) with the gavel on the Ways and Means Committee, which has major say over education policy, election laws, and taxation.
During her years as chair, Hixson hosted an annual St. Patrick’s Day party in Annapolis that became a cherished political tradition. She remained as chair until 2017, when she was replaced by Del. Anne Kaiser, a fellow Montgomery County Democrat, and was given the position of chair emerita.
Hixson mentored scores of younger politicians both in Annapolis and in Montgomery County for two generations, and during a period when her district’s senator, Ida Ruben, and one of the delegates, Dana Dembrow, were almost constantly at odds, Hixson served as an honest broker and occasional peacemaker. The District 20 Democratic Club, which she helped build through the years, is now named in her honor.
“She was a fascinating person & strong leader and I value the lessons I learned from serving with her,” Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City), the Democratic nominee for state comptroller, said in a tweet on Monday.
Montgomery County leaders said Hixson’s influence is felt throughout the county. County Executive Marc Elrich (D), a constituent of Hixson’s who benefited from her political advice, called it “a sad day.”
“Montgomery County lost one of our great leaders,” he said in a statement. “We are a better community because of her decades of public service. Our County and State’s growth, diversity, and success is a result of her hard work and dedication. We will never forget this historic and trailblazing figure.”
In addition to her legislative career, Hixson worked as a Democratic strategist, congressional staffer and Capitol Hill lobbyist. For years, she was part of an elite group of volunteers with the Democratic National Committee who handed out coveted guest tickets to the quadrennial Democratic National Convention, a job that enhanced her power and political cachet.
Hixson’s marriage ended in divorce, but for years she was romantic partners with Howard Cook, a veteran of Capitol Hill and the federal government who headed the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control for several years and mentored several local politicians in his own right. He died in 2004 at the age of 71.
Hixson is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren. Two adult sons died before she did.
Family and friends are planning a memorial service in Annapolis in early 2023.
The proximity of Hixson’s death to Election Day was not lost on her political acquaintances.
In a tweet separate from the statement announcing Hixson’s death, Raskin, whose career in Annapolis overlapped Hixson’s for a decade, wrote, “Sheila would say, go vote.”