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Before they vote for speaker, Md. Democrats need to calm down

As Maryland’s lawmakers return to Annapolis tomorrow to choose a new House speaker to replace the late Michael E. Busch, things are getting out of hand. Race, gender and party loyalties have become battlegrounds as threats and recriminations have flown freely. Everybody needs to take a deep breath here.

This is a contest between two highly qualified candidates — Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore City and Dereck E. Davis of Prince George’s County — both of whom would make history, either as the first female (and first openly gay) speaker or the first African American one. As we said a couple of weeks ago, we believe Delegate McIntosh is the better choice. She has more varied experience, having chaired two different standing committees (Environmental Affairs and Appropriations), and her views are better aligned with the growing progressive majority in the Democratic Caucus. Although we have great respect for Mr. Davis, we are concerned about concentrating too much power in one county — both Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Gov. Larry Hogan are Prince George’s natives and steeped in that county’s political tradition. By virtue of the committees she’s led, Delegate McIntosh has a strong record of regional and state-wide coalition-building on issues ranging from protecting the Chesapeake Bay and banning fracking to securing fair funding for public schools. Ms. McIntosh said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday that she had commitments for at least the 71 votes it would take to be elected speaker. We shall see.

This contest has become about a lot of other things besides qualifications. The Legislative Black Caucus met on Monday and voted strongly to support Mr. Davis, on the heels of another well qualified African-American candidate, Del. Adrienne Jones, dropping out and throwing her support to him. We absolutely understand and appreciate the view expressed by Black Caucus Chair Del. Darryl Barnes of Prince George’s County that it’s time to have an African American presiding officer in the Maryland General Assembly. Past time, really. More than enough qualified African-American candidates for statewide office have come up short for black voters to wonder whether their loyalty to the Democratic Party is a one-way street.

But the selection of a House speaker or Senate president is different from a vote for governor, U.S. senator, comptroller or attorney general. A presiding officer’s power comes not from the people of the state but from the ability to represent the will of the majority party in his or her chamber. Fundamentally, this isn’t a choice between a black man and a gay, white woman over which group is more overdue for representation, it’s a choice between Dereck Davis and Maggie McIntosh regarding which would be the most effective speaker of the House. That’s why Mr. Davis’ coalition of supporters includes many women and why Ms. McIntosh has the backing of a not insignificant number of Black Caucus members, some of whom have made public objections about the extent to which advocating for a black speaker has turned into an exercise in disparaging her.

The House Republican caucus has added fuel to this combustible mix by pledging that it will deliver its 42 votes in a bloc to one candidate or another, raising the possibility that a candidate could win the speakership with support from less than a majority in the Democratic caucus. Traditionally, Democrats have unified behind whichever candidate wins the majority of support in their caucus to prevent that from happening, but Mr. Davis has floated the idea of seeking that path to victory, and now Ms. McIntosh is reportedly soliciting support from Republicans in an evident attempt to block him. Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Maya Rockeymoore Cummings made matters worse last week with over-the-top threats of retribution against “any elected official who is caught using Party resources to promote Republican candidates and/or who work to block the ascension of Democratic nominees duly elected through official Democratic processes and procedures.”

We don’t blame the Republicans for trying to exert influence in this race; they should demand that the next speaker be at least as attentive to their concerns as Busch was, and they would be justified in asking for certain reforms to how the House is managed beyond what Busch allowed. But in our two-party system, a coalition like the one some black caucus members have suggested would quickly become unworkable. Politically, the Black Caucus and the Republican Caucus don’t have much in common, and a speaker trying to satisfy those constituencies would find himself or herself badly conflicted and consequently at constant risk of being deposed.

The flip side of that is that if Ms. McIntosh is successful on Wednesday, she needs to address the divisions within the House. That should start with retaining Mr. Davis as chairman of Economic Matters and naming Ms. Jones as her replacement on Appropriations. (Ms. Jones has long chaired the capital budget subcommittee and would be a natural successor regardless of the politics.) And it should extend to a commitment to work closely with the Black Caucus to implement its agenda and to groom a new generation of African American leaders in the House.

During his 17 years as speaker, Michael Busch did a remarkable job at maintaining comity (if not always unity) in the sprawling and diverse House membership. Whoever replaces him should make sustaining that legacy their top priority.

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