ANNAPOLIS — A new era dawned on the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday, with rising Democratic leadership impressing upon fellow lawmakers that now was the time to move forward together for the state’s future.
The lawmakers descended onto the state house with family members in tow to celebrate a historic changing of the guard. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, became the state’s first African-American and first woman to preside over the House of Delegates. And Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, was elected to Senate President.
Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, stepping in for Gov. Larry Hogan who was presiding over a Board of Public Works meeting, welcomed Jones after she was sworn in with the historic title Madam Speaker.
“It is great and is an honor to say,” he said. “This truly is a historic day, not just for this body, but for the entire state of Maryland.”
Since 2003, the legislature was led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Busch died last April, and Miller, battling cancer, announced last fall that he would step down as leadership and serve as a senator on the floor.
Jones, who served as speaker pro tempore for 16 years, was visibly emotional as she paid tribute to Busch. In her inaugural opening address, she ascended to the position with “a clear vision for the way forward but also with a heavy heart.”
“Too soon, we lost a giant in Maryland government, an ultimate public servant and an honorable man in Michael Erin Busch,” she said, her voice cracking. “I worked with Mike for 16 years and, together with many of you, we built the foundation on which we stand.”
She also recognized Busch’s family on the floor, who were greeted with a standing ovation from the House of Delegates.
Schools touted as top priority
Jones said she remained committed to Maryland children, with hopes of funding sweeping education reforms for public schools and school construction. Across the hall, Ferguson echoed her thoughts about leveling the funding field for schools so it’s not negotiated based on ZIP code.
Jones noted that during her statewide tour earlier this year to prepare for her new leadership role, she visited a school that could not open its doors.
“If we cannot ensure that every school in our state can open its doors and be ready to provide a world-class education to our children, we are failing,” she said to applause.
“That’s why we’re making school construction and education funding our top priority — so every child across the state has the opportunity to succeed.”
In a continuing symbol of the changing times, delegates voted unanimously for Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-Dorchester/Wicomico, as speaker pro tempore, the number two spot in the House. Sample-Hughes is the sole African-American delegate from the Eastern Shore.
Local changes, local agendas, local concerns
For some, like Del. Mike Griffith, R-Cecil/Harford, the day marked a seismic shift. He was sworn in Tuesday afternoon, one month after he was appointed to replace Andrew Cassilly’s seat.
“It’s really exciting. Certainly being here was something I never even thought was possible,” Griffith said.
“It’s been a pretty busy month and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity.”
His fellow colleagues, Del. Kevin Hornberger, R-Cecil, and Del. Teresa Reilly, R-Cecil/Harford, are seasoned and prepared to take the lead on their respective counties while Griffith still learns the ropes.
Hornberger is facing an ambitious session ahead with bills on sports gambling, and increasing Medicaid reimbursements to stave off financial drains on first responders. Reilly will be working in the first few days to push Harford County-focused bills through.
“We work closely with our county government and County Executive Barry Glassman and Alan McCarthy. It makes our job easier if we know there’s a bill touching our counties and so we can reach out and see where they are on it as well. We’ve also got friends in the federal government,” Reilly said.
“It’s key to work together to do what’s best for the citizens of our communities,” she said.
With a mind to the projected cost of the Kirwan Commission recommendations for statewide education reforms, Reilly said that there was still great unknowns in the plan itself, but believes that many counties on the Eastern Shore would not be able to front-fund the projected costs.
“The big question is if they do pass it and the counties find out that they can’t afford it, what’s going to happen?” Reilly said.
“Right now, we’ll have to wait and see if there’s a bipartisan way and see if we can come up with a compromise — and maybe implement the most important pieces first rather than all at once,” she said.
Working across the aisle
Her other Republican colleagues, like minority whip Sen. Steve Hershey, R-Upper Shore, also opened the session with cautious optimism for the path forward through compromise.
“There has always been a certain pride that we are more open minded, more willing to compromise, and we’re willing to do the hard work necessary to reach those consensus,” Hershey said in a speech in the Senate.
“Under the new leadership we should all hope that that continues,” he said. “We have to recognize that none of us are campaigning this year — and that we’re here just to do the work that is meaningful and important to all Marylanders.”
In his address to the House, Rutherford also harkened to this history of bipartisanship, noting that the leadership will continue that “gentle guiding hand of Speaker Busch.”
In the closing comments of her address, Jones stressed that the lawmakers need to continue a legacy of “putting people first” and finding solutions for the Maryland people.
“This is a new day but our goals remain the same,” she said. “Whether the Democrats or Republicans, we do the best work on behalf of the people we serve.”