Two Maryland Democratic delegates have joined forces in an effort to elect the state’s first black speaker of the House.
House Speaker Pro Tem Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, said she would withdraw her candidacy for the top spot and throw her support behind Del. Dereck Davis, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, as he seeks to succeed the late speaker, Michael Busch.
Jones said she spent the last several weeks reflecting on her time in the House and on Busch, whom she called a mentor, as well as on the potentially divisive task of electing a new speaker.
“Unity must outweigh politics and pride,” Jones said. “It is for that reason I am calling for the Legislative Black Caucus to unite and join me in supporting Del. Dereck E. Davis as the next speaker.”
The announcement reduces by one a three-candidate field that also includes Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. The decision by Jones to withdraw also leaves one black candidate for speaker. Maryland has never elected an African American to lead the House, and only one constitutional officer in Maryland has been black — former treasurer and state Del. Richard Dixon.
“Right now we’re doing what we have to do to say now is our time,” said Del. Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore City and the House Majority whip.
The General Assembly is set to return to Annapolis on May 1 for a special session that is expected to last just long enough to elect a new presiding officer. Busch served as speaker from 2003 until his death on April 7.
“It is not the decision of any political party or interest group or outside influence, but rather the men and women who work hard each and every day during session and year-round to make smart decisions for all of our constituents,” Davis said.
Three main candidates emerged following Busch’s death: Davis, Jones and McIntosh. Davis and McIntosh have been laying succession groundwork since 2017.
“Just so we are all clear. Within the Democratic Caucus in the House of Delegates, there are many black members who I would love to see in the Speaker’s Chair. The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland has enough votes to deliver that position to them in a caucus vote,” Joseph Lynn Kitchen, president of the Young Democrats of Maryland, wrote in a Facebook post. “However, the effort being undertaken by some, including the chair, to caucus with Republicans in order to win the seat will be a horrible setback. Any Democrat who wins the Speaker’s gavel by allying themselves with the Republican conference will need to moderate every vote in the future to keep that seat. A deal like this will keep bills like the Fight for $15 and abolishing the Death Penalty from ever coming to the floor.”
Branch, Davis and others have pushed back, saying the election of a new speaker is a purely internal matter for the House.
By rule, the entire House of Delegates selects the leader of the House. In practice, it is the majority party — in this case the Democrats — that typically decides.
Internally, the election could prove divisive, pitting subsets of the Democratic Party against each other, including the 45-member Black Caucus — which may not yet be united in support of one candidate — and younger progressives.
Observers say that one path to victory for Davis would be to secure the support of the Legislative Black Caucus, as well as the backing of the 42 members of the Republican Caucus.
Davis has repeatedly told reporters that he has made no deals with Republicans and is seeking to win the vote of a majority of Democrats.
The death of Busch, the longest-serving House speaker in state history, has drawn tremendous attention from outside groups, including coalitions led by the ACLU of Maryland and the Maryland State Education Association. Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings issued a memo to legislative Democrats on Wednesday demanding they vote for the Democratic candidate approved by a majority of the caucus and warning also-rans not to take a fight to the House floor and seek support from Republicans.
A day later, Rockeymoore Cummings softened her message, saying language that had been construed as a threat to the Legislative Black Caucus had been misinterpreted.
“We’ve never really had one of this nature,” Davis said of the contested race and the interest from outside groups. “Personally, I think this is good for our democracy. Coronations are never good.”