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Adrienne Jones: Maryland's new speaker of a House divided

What’s stunning about Maryland House Democrats’ decision to unanimously back as the next speaker Adrienne Jones — a Baltimore County delegate who had dropped out of the race and thrown her support to a rival — is that it was not the most shocking possible outcome of Monday’s high-stakes election.

Compared to the possibility that Del. Dereck Davis could have won the speakership on the strength of a minority of the Democratic caucus and the unanimous support of the GOP, this was a conventional outcome — the kind of surprising compromise that can occur in a closed-door caucus meeting. Ms. Jones, who was the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s second in command for 17 years, has the stature and experience to serve as a compromise choice between Mr. Davis and Del. Maggie McIntosh. Whether she has the political skills to unite an obviously fractured Democratic caucus remains to be seen.

Ms. McIntosh had the support of the majority of the Democratic caucus in the initial, secret balloting Wednesday — 58 votes. But Mr. Davis had 40, enough with the 42 Republican votes that had been pledged to him to win the speakership in what would have been unprecedented (and likely problematic) fashion. The contest, more or less, was between the progressive wing of the caucus, which supported Ms. McIntosh, and the Black Caucus, which supported Mr. Davis. (There were, of course, exceptions on both sides.) Ms. Jones served as a way out of what was shaping up as a bruising fight, and the two other candidates for the post offered a strong display of support for her. Ms. McIntosh nominated her on the House floor, and Mr. Davis seconded the motion.

But Ms. Jones is not a perfect compromise figure. She is African American, which was of great importance to many members of the Black Caucus who insisted that it is past time for an African American to serve as a presiding officer of one of the two chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, even though she was not the caucus’ first choice. Her ascendency to the job is history-making — she is just the fifth African-American leader of a legislative chamber in the nation, and the first woman in Maryland. But she has not been a leader and mentor to the progressives to the degree Ms. McIntosh has been. The resurrection of her candidacy offered the opportunity to find the majority needed to secure the speakership without Republican votes, but the rift in the caucus remains.

And it's likely to be deepened by the realization that while the Republican Caucus didn’t decide who would be speaker, they did decide who wouldn’t be. While the Democrats were fighting among themselves, the GOP emerged from its own caucus pledging all 42 votes to Mr. Davis. That wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Ms. McIntosh had begun courting Republican votes, too, in an evident effort to avoid a unified front in the GOP. But Minority Leader Nic Kipke and Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga kept their caucus together and were thus able to veto the speaker candidate they wanted least. That’s unlikely to sit well with the progressives.

We supported Ms. McIntosh’s candidacy for speaker, believing the breadth of her experience and the alignment of her politics with the majority in the Democratic Caucus would make her the strongest leader for the chamber. But we appreciate Ms. Jones’ skills and experience, too. She is soft-spoken, but thoughtful, a good listener who is doubtless attuned to the fracture points within her party. And she had a front-row seat to Busch's long tenure as his caucus’ great unifier, champion and coach. She is also unquestionably committed to Baltimore, and we expect her to be an ally to the city in Annapolis.

But her first priority will have to be calming the tensions this fight between Ms. McIntosh and Mr. Davis exposed. Her speakership will be badly challenged if she cannot. Ms. Jones may have received a unanimous vote on the House floor, but the chamber has rarely been less unified.

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