Adding a Black Women’s Touch to Statehouse Power

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones

By Airielle Lowe

Last year, her first as Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Adrienne A. Jones ushered through legislation to settle a lawsuit ordering the state to compensate its historically Black public colleges for years of inequitable funding. Gov. Larry Hogan refused to sign the measure, saying its price tag was much too high.

So this year, Jones, the first woman and first Black person in the powerful post, did it again. Hogan not only signed it; he praised it as “an unprecedented step forward,” and even took credit for approval of a bill nearly identical to the one he’d rejected a year earlier: “It was a great cooperation between us and the Republicans and the Democrats in the legislature,” the Republican governor said.

“We finally got to this day,” Jones said at the signing ceremony. One of the legislation’s sponsors agreed. “It’s finally an acknowledgement that the state engaged in an activity that it shouldn’t have been engaged in,” said state Sen. Charles E. Sydnor, a Democrat who, like Jones, represents Baltimore County. “This is about people power,” Sydnor said.

And some of those people gave credit for the reversal of fate to one person in particular. “This is a big win for the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, and the speaker and her Black agenda,” proclaimed the caucus chairman, Del. Darryl Barnes, a Democrat from Prince George’s County. 

“Is it what everybody wanted? No,” Barnes said. “But I do believe it will provide the necessary capital for those HBCUs to help with programming, recruiting and faculty. And that’s a huge win for them.”

Jones had included the HBCU measure in a package of initiatives to improve the lot of Black residents, businesses and institutions, and branded it a “Black Agenda”—her Black agenda, the Speaker’s.

That personal touch may have been particularly significant. When “Black women have formalized power…that takes in a different weight,” said Nadia E. Brown, a Purdue University political science professor and the author of “Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making.”

“Black women have pushed political agendas before and have been at the forefront before,” said Brown. “But what we see in the Maryland state legislature is that these women have leadership positions, [and] they’re able to get their agenda on the state legislature’s agenda,” she said in an interview.

Just days before the opening of the session, Jones suggested that what is happening in Annapolis now simply may be a matter of whose time has come. “Let’s put it his way,” she told The Washington Post, “The 106 speakers before me, they would not put this [agenda] as a priority. Historically, there has been a White agenda.”

Senate President Pro Tem Melony G. Griffith, who is the first woman and first Black person to wear that title, is championing a similar agenda for legislative consideration in the upper chamber, made more timely, she said, by recent concerns over social justice and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have already known for not just years, but for decades that there are disparities in the state of Maryland and across the country,” Griffith told The Post. It is time, she said, to make sure that Maryland is “doing everything that we can as a state to move the needle and try to address systemic issues around racism, equity and inclusion.”

Jones and Griffith are not the only Black women in key leadership positions in the legislature, and their party label is just as important to their power as their race and gender. Jones’s deputy is one, and several of the items on the agenda are initiatives of other Black women in key positions on House committees.

All are Democrats, and the party holds veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Nearly one-third of the General Assembly’s members belong to the Black caucus, and about half of those legislators are women.

They come from various parts of the state, represent districts that may or may not have Black majorities, and don’t all interact with their non-Black peers in the same way.

“We tend to think of Black representatives as having monolithic experiences that lead them to do something in the statehouse. These women are from all over, and that brings a different perspective,” Purdue University’s Brown said. “They’ve had different community upbringing growing up, and these inform their sense of community and what they do.”

Maryland has 47 legislative districts, each of which elects one Senator and three Delegates. That provision not only triples the numerical strength of Delegates from majority Black districts, but also allows blocks of Black voters to be decisive in districts where they are not in the majority.

Most of Maryland’s Black population—about 30 percent—resides in six counties and the city of Baltimore, and of the 24 such jurisdictions, Prince George’s and Baltimore are the only two with Black majorities. Yet 43 of the 45 Black members of the House come from those seven jurisdictions, and all but one of those Delegates are Democrats.

Each of the Black women in top leadership positions, as well as two of those who are sponsors of key proposals on Jones’s agenda, came to the legislature from a different personal, educational or professional background, and along a slightly different path of public service.

Jones, for instance, was born in the historically Black area of predominantly White Baltimore County (outside the city of the same name), where she still lives. She graduated from that county’s branch of the University of Maryland and entered public office for the first time as a member of the House of Delegates 24 years ago.

Her deputy, Del. Sheree L. Sample-Hughes, also is a native Marylander, but from another part of the state—the less populous, more rural Eastern Shore area between the Chesapeake Bay and the state’s coastline with the Atlantic Ocean. Sample-Hughes holds degrees from two universities in Delaware, one historically Black and the other, predominantly White. She served eight years on her local county council before being elected to the legislature seven years ago.

Griffith, the Senate leader, served 16 years in the House before joining the upper chamber in 2019. She is a native Texan who grew up on an Air Force Base in Montana, earned an undergraduate degree there, and a graduate degree from Howard University in the District of Columbia. Unlike Jones and Sample-Hughes, she is a representative from a county that is predominantly Black, Prince George’s.

So is Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, the principal sponsor of a bill to designate racism as a public health crisis and mandate health equity training for doctors and nurses in the state. Peña-Melnyk was  born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New York City, earned her law degree in Buffalo, and worked as both a federal prosecutor and a criminal defense attorney.

She joined the House in 2007 after serving two terms on the City Council in College Park, a city of about 31,000 that is home to the flagship campus of the University of Maryland.

Del. Pamela E. Queen is a native New Yorker, born there but educated at historically Black Tuskegee University in Alabama, the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore , and George Washington University in Washington.

Queen held no elective office before she came to the General Assembly six  years ago. She grew up in one of nation’s most expensive cities and now is a representative from one of Maryland’s most expensive counties, where the population is about 20 percent Black. She is the chief sponsor of a bill to increase Black home ownership statewide.

Both House Speaker Jones and Senate Pro Tem Griffith have decades of experience in the legislature, and time in office traditionally is a major contributor to prestige, rank and power among lawmakers. The advantages of seniority can be troublesome, however, when it comes time to vote on issues of common concern, but generational differences of opinion.

Some Democratic legislators in both chambers, for example, have supported a package of bills to  address health disparities that a preamble to the measures attributes in part to “racism…rooted in the foundation of America.”

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, who has been in the legislature since 1991 and heads the powerful Finance Committee, supported a move to eliminate nearly a dozen references in the preamble to structural racism after Republicans and moderate Democrats objected to the wording. 

“We were going to lose the vote on the floor if we didn’t remove the preamble,” Kelley told The Washington Post. “And the devil works in mysterious ways. …I think they thought we would let the whole bill die.”

Sen. Mary L. Washington, who, like Kelley is African American but joined the legislature 20 years after her and was the first openly LGBTQ Black elected official in the state, is the chief sponsor of the measure with the language that was removed.

“The truth of the matter,” Washington said in defense of the wording, “is in order to end racism in this state we have to be willing to call it out and see it in print.” 

Despite their dominance in the state legislature, Maryland Democrats have yet to elect a Black woman as governor or a member of the U.S. Senate. Three Black men—two Republicans and one Democrat—have been elected lieutenant governor.

In 2008, Donna F. Edwards of Prince George’s was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland. She later gave up that seat to pursue the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate. Fellow Democrat Chris Van Hollen, who is White, was nominated instead, and went on to win the Senate seat.

Edwards attributed her defeat to issues of race and gender. “For the record, I am a proud black woman, lawyer, systems engineer, nonprofit CEO, five-term member of Congress (the first black woman from Maryland), and a mom who raised my son mostly on my own,” she wrote afterwards in Cosmopolitan magazine.

“For more than a year,” she said, “I faced a barrage of personal attacks on my character, demeanor, personality and appearance. I was accused of playing ‘identity politics’ by big-tent Democrats because I talked about the need for the perspectives of people of color, women, and especially Black women in the United States Senate.”

Brown, the Purdue University professor, said Van Hollen and Edwards had similar stances on many issues, “so if the Democratic Party was serious about electing a progressive person, they could have elected her or Chris Van Hollen.

“But the barriers or the way that she was framed in the media and by the party … was that she was too narrow, that she could only represent Black women, that she was too beholden to Black women, she was out of step with Maryland. And that was definitely not the case.”Angela D. Alsobrooks, a Black woman who is the current Prince George’s County Executive and broke barriers as the first Black woman elected to that post and, before that, the first elected the county’s chief criminal prosecutor, is the leading Democrat lining up to run for governor next year. 

April 1, 2021

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