First African American and Woman to Serve as Maryland House Speaker

by | May 2, 2019 AT 7:08 AM
Adrienne Jones
(AP/Steve Ruark)

By Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood

Baltimore County's Del. Adrienne A. Jones was unanimously elected the next speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates on Wednesday, making history as the first woman and African American to hold the position.

In a state that had never elected anyone but white males as speakers, Jones, 64, emerged as a compromise candidate -- endorsed by progressives, Republicans and the Legislative Black Caucus -- after an intense, closed-door battle between Baltimore's Del. Maggie McIntosh and Prince George's County's Del. Dereck Davis, both Democrats, produced no consensus winner.

McIntosh initially won a vote of the Democratic Caucus by 58-40 over Davis, but then the Republican Caucus announced its 42 votes would go to Davis, setting up a bitter floor fight some feared would divide the state -- and the Democratic Party -- for years. That's when both McIntosh and Davis approached Jones, the quiet, but well-respected speaker pro tem who had bowed out of the race last week.

When the House convened after hours of negotiations for the special session to elect the speaker, it was McIntosh who nominated Jones for the speaker's position. She was given a rousing standing ovation.

"These walls will never be the same!" declared McIntosh, referencing the large portraits of the past House speakers -- all white men.

McIntosh said of Jones: "She is the hardest-working person in this House. I look around and think: 'How can she do all that?' She has, like, five jobs and she does them all with grace and dignity."

Then Davis stood to second the nomination of Jones, whom he called "a dear friend."

"'House of Cards' doesn't have anything on us. Talk about high drama," Davis said.

He praised Jones' courage and conviction in leading the House in the final weeks of this year's General Assembly session, when Speaker Michael Busch was hospitalized with pneumonia. Jones served as Busch's second-in-command until his death on April 7.

The final vote was 139-0. The House again rose for another standing ovation for Jones.

At a news conference following the vote, Jones was flanked by Davis and McIntosh. She pointed to them and said: "It is because of these two individuals ... that I'm in this position that I am in today."

After Busch's death, Jones said she waited several days to begin making calls in her bid for speaker, while her rivals immediately began working the phones in pursuit of votes. She dropped out of the race last week and endorsed Davis at a Legislative Black Caucus event in which she said she wanted to put party unity ahead of self-interest.

"Discussion went back and forth within our caucus in terms of who could get the 71 votes and because of these two individuals that put unity of this House before their own ambition ... they both came and talked with me separately that they would want me to be that person," Jones said of the vote Wednesday.

Anne Arundel County Del. Nic Kipke, the House minority leader, appeared alongside the Democrats at a press conference and said Jones has been "a great friend" to the Republican delegates.

"Our Caucus is proud to have been a critical piece in this historic election and we offer heartfelt congratulations to the new Speaker of the House," Kipke said.

Jones has been a member of the House since 1997, when she was appointed to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Del. Joan N. Parker. Jones was chairwoman of a subcommittee that handles the budget for state construction projects, putting her in touch with lawmakers around the state who seek support for projects in their districts.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, celebrated the elevation of Jones, an alumnus. He called Jones' election an example of politicians working together for the common good.

"What we saw here in the Maryland House of Delegates is what we want to see in our country, which is people finding the common ground and focusing on the public good. That is the theme here today," Hrabowski said.

Hrabowski said Jones, who earned a psychology degree from UMBC, is a hard-working leader who focuses on "evenness and a willingness to listen to different points of view."

The race had grown nasty in its final stretch as Davis supporters attempted to win with Republican votes. Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings tried to intervene in the fight -- calling it "unacceptable" for all Democrats not to unite behind the winner of the caucus vote.

That prompted Del. Darryl Barnes, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, to accuse Rockeymoore Cummings of "bullying and threatening" his members.

Then some delegates accused the Barnes of making a homophobic remark against McIntosh -- which he denied -- and some lawmakers began referring to the race as "toxic."

After Wednesday's vote, Barnes said the Legislative Black Caucus was "extremely pleased" by Jones' victory.

"Since the first speaker was elected in 1777, no African American has held the post," he said. "I want to particularly thank all the members of the caucus for coming together to support Speaker Jones. Without them this historical vote would not have happened."

Todd Eberly, a political scientist from St. Mary's College of Maryland, said Jones' willingness to step aside showed leadership.

"Last week Adrienne Jones was willing to walk away from the Speaker race and now she is the Speaker," he wrote on Twitter. "A person willing to give up power is precisely the type of person we should entrust with power."

Ralph Moore, a longtime Baltimore activist who supported Jones' bid for speaker, said it was "only appropriate" she emerged victorious.

"I'm tired of seeing the upper reaches of our government either be all male and all white," Moore said. "Adrienne is qualified. It was her turn."

Moore said he's known Jones since they were kids. Jones grew up in Arbutus and attended church with him in Harlem Park at Saint Pius Memorial Roman Catholic Church. He said he sees Jones' election as an opportunity to boost the Baltimore region from a powerful position in Annapolis.

Moore noted that Jones' selflessness in stepping aside during the race in hopes of unifying the party ended up benefiting her.

"There's a certain karma in what happened," Moore said. "She was honorable, and that's not in large supply down there. Adrienne is great. It means there can be some change in our state. It was perfect in every way."

Maryland's Speaker of the House has tremendous power to guide the direction of the state. Jones will be able to appoint committee chairs and make committee assignments and help dictate which legislative policies succeed or fail. She said she had no immediate changes to leadership positions.

"I didn't think I would be here when I left my house this morning," Jones said.

(c)2019 The Baltimore Sun