If Friday’s vote to confirm Dennis Schrader as the new state health secretary was easy, the nearly hour-long debate before his approval raises the question: What would difficult look like?
The Maryland Senate voted 45-2 to confirm Gov Larry Hogan’s pick for the post. The lopsided vote of approval, however, obscures deep-seated concerns and fiery criticism of Schrader even by those who ultimately supported him.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel, raised concerns about what she called a lack of transparency regarding the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Maryland and shortages of vaccine shipments to larger counties such as the one she represents. Still, she voted for Schrader.
“I think I am going to think on this one for a number of years and wonder if I did the right thing,” said Elfreth. “This is less a vote of confidence like some many folks here and more a vote of hope.”
Sen. Arthur Ellis, D-Charles County, voted for Schrader but sharply criticized the health secretary and Hogan for what he said was a failure to equitably vaccinate Black and other minority communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“Nowhere were African-American or Latino citizens prioritized for vaccination,” said Ellis. “The governor knew this. The health department knew this, but they did not put these two groups into the priority for vaccinations. That says: ‘Let them die.'”
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, of Anne Arundel, the Republican leader in the Senate, took exception with Ellis’ characterization.
“I can guarantee from the governor down to every state employee, none of them said, ‘let them die.’ I think that’s unfair and it’s inaccurate and our words matter,” he said.
This is the second time Hogan has nominated Schrader for the position — he was previously nominated and withdrawn in 2017 before a floor vote.
In the end, only two senators voted against Schrader — Sens. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, and Mary Washington, D-Baltimore. Lam, who is also a physician, asked for Schrader’s name to be separated from a slate of nominees up for a vote.
“Secretary Schrader has served the citizens of Maryland well and faithfully during the biggest public health challenge we have ever faced, and I am very proud of the work he and his entire department are doing to save lives every day,” said Hogan. “I would like to thank (Senate) President (Bill) Ferguson and members of the Maryland Senate for recognizing that Secretary Schrader is the right leader to continue steering the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dennis has never wavered in his decades-long commitment to the people of Maryland.”
Over the last 11 weeks, Schrader has been in the hot seat weekly as he appeared before the newly created Senate Vaccine Oversight Work Group.
“This is one of the first times in 100 years that we have seen one activity be the most important in all of state government,” said Ferguson. “There was nothing more important over the last … 12 weeks than the administration of vaccines in the state of Maryland.”
Ferguson created the panel specifically to hold Schrader and the state accountable on how vaccines were distributed and administered. A month ago, Ferguson told reporters that Schrader would have a tough time being confirmed if his name were to come up at that time.
Last week, the top Senate Democrat signaled a less difficult vote and told reporters he had grown more satisfied with the nominee’s efforts and responsiveness and would vote to send Schrader’s name to the full Senate.
Ferguson and others praised Schrader for his participation in all of the oversight hearings as well as for making changes that they said improved a chaotic process that lacked centralized registration and waiting lists.
“I have to say, I’ve worked with a lot of Cabinet secretaries over the years and based on that experience over these months I found Secretary Schrader to be one of the most constructive, cooperative, open secretaries I’ve worked with,” said Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties. “He actually shows up for the meetings.”
And while Rosapepe and other senators praised Schrader for his responsiveness and for being willing to return calls, not every lawmaker said they had the same experience.
“I am certainly glad that some of our colleagues have been reached out to and feel as though they have a personal relationship with the secretary and are able to get what they need for their communities from that secretary,” said Washington, the Baltimore senator, who added that she got her first call from Schrader two days before the vote.
“It’s not that I don’t think that he’s a nice guy or shouldn’t get an A for effort,” said Washington. “But when we’re talking about a secretary of health there is a general orientation and view and approach to securing the public health that we found lacking.”