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Howard Del. Vanessa Atterbeary finds balance as a mom, a politician, an activist

Del. Vanessa Atterbeary sits as her desk in her office in Annapolis. Atterbeary, 44, of Maple Lawn, is a Democrat for District 13 who has been serving in the House of Delegates since 2015. She was born and raised in Howard County; she attended Clemens Crossing Elementary, Clarksville Middle and Atholton High schools.
Del. Vanessa Atterbeary sits as her desk in her office in Annapolis. Atterbeary, 44, of Maple Lawn, is a Democrat for District 13 who has been serving in the House of Delegates since 2015. She was born and raised in Howard County; she attended Clemens Crossing Elementary, Clarksville Middle and Atholton High schools. (Joshua McKerrow/Capital Gazette)

This is the second in a four-part series of articles about black and African American Howard County leaders in celebration of Black History Month.

Rain was falling for the second straight week in Howard County. It was midafternoon on Monday, and Del. Vanessa Atterbeary confidently walked into a Starbucks in Laurel and ordered an iced tea.

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She was dressed head to toe in black with a pop of color in her bright red lipstick. She sat down and set her phone on the wooden table. It instantly vibrated, a picture of her children illuminating in the background.

Atterbeary, 44, of Maple Lawn, was running a few minutes late for an interview after spending the morning preparing the week’s dinners for her three children. The menu this week included chicken and green beans.

“When I first got elected, there were a couple people with young kids but not a lot,” Atterbeary said. “Now after this past election, there’s a lot of people with young kids.”

Atterbeary, first elected in 2014, is one of three delegates who represent District 13 in Howard County at the state level and one of 56 legislators in Annapolis who are black.

She was running around her house Monday morning, leaving clothes and water bottles out for her children to find in time for basketball practice later that night.

She would be spending the night in Annapolis because of the busy week ahead, and she wanted to feel as if she had things handled. Atterbeary and her three children, ages 5, 7 and 8, spent the weekend making Valentines for their classes at Fulton Elementary School.

She knew there wouldn’t be time during the week.

“I think people have no idea how difficult it is to balance everything,” said Atterbeary, who is a single mom. “My friend calls me ‘Logistics.’ ”

Atterbeary joins her fellow 187 legislators every year for four months at the General Assembly in Annapolis. She spends every January through April pushing for legislation on gun reform, education and women’s rights — issues that Atterbeary said are most important to her.

One loss, one win

It took Atterbeary two tries to get elected to the legislature. She first ran in 2010, for the District 18 delegate seat, while living in Silver Spring in Montgomery County.

She came in fifth place in a field of six, losing to three incumbents.

“I put [in] over a year of my life,” she said. “My parents got really involved, and this was before I had kids, so this was my baby [at the time].”

A few years later, Atterbeary was approached by Del. Frank Turner, a family friend and a 23-year legislator. Turner was the first African American to represent Howard County in the General Assembly and had a proposal for her.

“I called her on the last day of filing,” Turner said. “I told her, ‘I want you to go down to the Board of Elections and I want you to file.’ ”

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Turner thought Atterbeary’s Howard County roots would make her a more desirable candidate in District 13 than she was in Montgomery County. She was born and raised in the county and attended Howard schools.

She sat her family down and explained an opportunity she described as “now or never.”

Atterbeary found out she was pregnant with her third child during late spring in 2014 while she was canvassing around the county.

A few weeks later, on June 24, 2014, the primary gave Atterbeary an extraordinary birthday gift: a victory.

“I think people have no idea how difficult it is to balance everything,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who is a single mom. “My friend calls me ‘Logistics.’ ”
“I think people have no idea how difficult it is to balance everything,” said Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who is a single mom. “My friend calls me ‘Logistics.’ ” (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

She went on to win the general election in November and, alongside Del. Terri Hill, became the second and third African American representatives in the General Assembly from Howard County.

“[Calling Atterbeary was] probably one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Turner said. “I think she has turned out to be an extraordinary delegate. The commitment she has to not only her family but to the people in the state of Maryland, it takes a very good juggling act. Not everybody’s capable of doing that.”

For Atterbeary, running again wasn’t easy.

“Actually, a good friend of mine asked after I won in 2014 [in Howard County], ‘When did you get over losing in [2010]?’ And I responded, ‘When I won this [2014] election,’ ” she said.

Mom first, delegate second

A month before the 2015 session began, while other delegates were hiring their new staff and getting ready, Atterbeary was giving birth.

“I had two kids in diapers and one in a pull-up, and I was starting this new job in Annapolis,” Atterbeary said.

When she first got to Annapolis in 2014, Atterbeary said people would laugh at her bulging purse. In reality, it wasn’t her purse but a diaper bag filled to the brim with wipes, diapers and “anything you could possibly need” disguised in the hallways of the Capitol, she said.

“I don’t know if it’s accommodating to be a working mom in the General Assembly as a matter of fact,” she said of the time when she was first elected.

Today, Atterbeary said things have dramatically improved, a feat she credits to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a mother and grandmother, and someone Atterbeary calls an advocate for women. Jones is the first African American female speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, succeeding longtime Speaker Michael E. Busch, who died April 7.

Before the start of the 2020 session, Jones ordered the removal of two men’s bathroom stalls, and created a gender-neutral restroom and a new parents’ room for nursing mothers. These features were not available to Atterbeary when she was first elected, but she said she’s happy they’re there now.

“As someone who worked and raised two sons, I know how difficult it is to balance full-time work with full-time motherhood. Delegate Atterbeary seems to do this with ease,” Jones said. “Motherhood influences her work as a legislator in the best way possible. These issues are important to her as a parent, but they’re also important to families and individuals she represents.”

For Atterbeary, she said it’s nice just to have company in the young parents club.

Howard County through and through

Atterbeary was born and raised in Howard County; she attended Clemens Crossing Elementary School, Clarksville Middle School — where her mother was a math teacher for 30 years — and Atholton High School.

“When I first walked into my oldest son’s class when he started kindergarten, I literally said, ‘Oh my god, it’s like a little UN [United Nations] in here,’ ” she said. “When I was growing up, it was not diverse.”

Atterbeary only remembers one other black student from her elementary school and middle school days. To supplement her black history education, her mother, Rosalynne, sent Atterbeary and her brother to the Central Branch library once a month beginning in elementary school through eighth grade for a black history reading program hosted by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., one of the nine national black fraternities and sororities.

Atterbeary went on to later join the sorority, following in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

“They really knew their black history, and they knew a lot of the black history of Howard County as well,” Rosalynne Atterbeary said.

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That history was not being taught in the county then, and Vanessa Atterbeary said it’s still not being taught.

A few weeks ago, Atterbeary was at an event listening to kids in the county discuss the difficulties in not having teachers who looked like them, an experience Atterbeary said matched hers from 30 years ago.

“Kids automatically associate, feel comfortable with somebody who looks like you, because you think they can understand your experience more,” she said.

She saw the same problem at her son’s school. At the same time, parents from other schools began reaching out to Atterbeary, asking her what could be done to get more teachers of color into the school. So she requested a meeting with schools Superintendent Michael Martirano.

“I think sometimes people contact me no matter where they are in the county because they know I have little kids, and they know I’m passionate about kids in our county,” she said.

Atterbeary wants to see the county recruit teachers from schools with higher black student populations like Morgan State University, Bowie State University and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

“Wherever they can find black [college] students and wherever they can find Latino students and wherever they can find Asian students, [the Howard County Public School System] needs to recruit them and bring them here, because we are diverse and our teachers need to reflect that,” she said.

Being a woman in 2020 politics

Last month, Atterbeary spent almost every day on the House floor defending her gun legislation, which would require background checks for secondary transfers of “long guns” such as rifles and shotguns, and overriding one of Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes that would have abolished a Handgun Permit Review Board.

A fellow delegate, whom Atterbeary declined to name, called her after her remarks on the floor.

“[He] said, ‘You did a really good job ... today because you weren’t too cute, you weren’t too loud, your tone was good,’ ” Atterbeary said. “It was very condescending.”

Interactions like this happen all the time to her, she said.

Vanessa Atterbeary, who is now a Democratic state delegate for District 13, was featured on the cover of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier in 1984.
Vanessa Atterbeary, who is now a Democratic state delegate for District 13, was featured on the cover of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier in 1984. (Baltimore Sun Media file)

In 2018, the General Assembly publicized harassment complaints against lawmakers that included 11 allegations of sexual harassment.

“I know before I got there things were really bad in Annapolis, and even when I was there [before the harassment complaints were publicized] people would say things to me and come up and put their hand around [my] waist and touch [me],” she said.

Atterbeary said that though that behavior was “reined in,” it’s still a problem in Annapolis.

She said she always tells her staff if they ever feel uncomfortable to let her know; she said a staff member has approached her only once since she took office in 2015.

When asked what could be done to prevent the culture from continuing, Atterbeary replied: “I think elections are super important. People need to vote in people how they want to be represented. If you want your representation to reflect you, you need to go out and vote.”

On Black History Month

Atterbeary calls this time in Howard County history a “breaking point,” with multiple high-ranking officials who are people of color, including Police Chief Lisa Myers; the first black county executive, Calvin Ball; and State’s Attorney Rich Gibson.

“It’s such an interesting time in our county’s history, and you just never know who’s watching it. That is just a great thing for little black girls to see,” Atterbeary said.

“Women just need to know we have to be part of the conversation. We have to be in the mix; otherwise our issues are not going to be heard, particularly minority women. People reach out to men and ask them to run for office. People don’t necessarily reach out to women.”

She stresses the importance of representation to young people, to the extent that she agrees to speak to kids in the county anytime she’s asked.

“My generation, and the generation after me, is focused on changing things and particularly changing policy and changing how things are in society,” Atterbeary said. “You never know who’s watching; you never know how that impacts people in the community.”

For Atterbeary’s mother, it’s remarkable to see the changes in the county that made her daughter’s success possible.

“Forty years ago, it would have been really difficult for a black person to be elected and a black woman to do that. Circumstances certainly changed demographically so that could happen,” Rosalynne Atterbeary said.

This story has been updated to correct Del. Vanessa Atterbeary’s age and the number of delegates who represent District 13 in Howard County at the state level.

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