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'This is our time': Maryland black caucus backs Del. Davis for House speaker as race turns heated

The Legislative Black Caucus announced during a news conference their "overwhelming" decision to support Del. Dereck Davis of Prince Georges as the next speaker of the House of Delegates. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

A group of Maryland’s black lawmakers announced Monday that it is backing Del. Dereck Davis to become speaker of the House of Delegates — the latest move in what’s becoming an increasingly heated campaign to replace the late Speaker Michael E. Busch among two of his top lieutenants.

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland held a closed-door meeting in Annapolis where they decided “overwhelmingly” to support Davis for speaker, said Democrat Del. Darryl Barnes, chairman of the caucus.

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“We support him 100 percent,” Barnes said at a news conference afterward, flanked by more than two dozen members of the 45-member caucus.

The move came as some black lawmakers spoke out against what they called “homophobic remarks” attributed to Barnes. Not all of the caucus members attended the meeting, and some said they are supporting Davis’ chief rival for the post, Democratic Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore.

Democratic Del. Regina T. Boyce, who represents the same Baltimore district as McIntosh, quit the caucus after accusing Barnes of warning members: “We are going to let a white lesbian be the speaker of the house” if they supported McIntosh.

Barnes denied making the comment Monday.

“Those words never came out of my mouth,” he said. “I attribute it to political posturing.”

But Democratic Del. Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore — who like Boyce did not attend Monday’s news conference to endorse Davis — said she heard Barnes’ comment April 8, the final day of the legislature’s regular session.

“Everyone in the room heard him,” Lewis said. “Delegate Boyce’s characterization of his remarks is accurate. It was disappointing and upsetting to hear homophobic and intolerant remarks at the time. And it’s even more disappointing and upsetting to hear them denied now.”

McIntosh said she was disappointed to hear of the comment.

“We shouldn’t have that kind of discussion used as a threat in our caucus today,” McIntosh said. “We should be long past this.”

Barnes said the black caucus was rallying around Davis to help him become the first black speaker in Maryland and just the fifth in a state legislative body in America. Barnes said black lawmakers in Maryland should not have to wait any longer to have one of their own as speaker.

“If not now, then when?” Barnes said. “This is our time. This is our opportunity.”

Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat, is facing McIntosh in the race to replace Busch, who died April 7. A special session of the General Assembly is scheduled for noon Wednesday for the House to elect a new speaker.

“This is much bigger than me. This is about inclusiveness,” Davis said.

The competition between Davis and McIntosh, both General Assembly veterans, has led to messy infighting in the Democratic Party, which holds a 2-to-1 majority over Republicans in the legislature.

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McIntosh has courted younger and more progressive members of the House in her campaign and believes she has more than 60 votes secured from Democrats — enough to win a majority within the 98-member Democratic caucus. A total of 71 votes is needed in the 141-member House.

Davis might need to count on Republican votes, along with some Democrats, to counter McIntosh’s advantage. That idea led to a warning last week from the Maryland Democratic Party chairwoman that an alliance with Republicans would be “unacceptable.”

Davis said he’s promised nothing to Republicans besides a pledge to continue Busch’s legacy of listening to and respecting them.

“I intend to continue that same tradition, in that they’ll have a seat at the table,” Davis said.

Davis wouldn’t reveal how many votes he’s secured, saying he’ll work to win delegates until the vote is taken on the House floor. He said he thinks Democrats will rally around the new speaker, whoever wins.

“This is not about division,” Davis said. “Sometimes when you’re making tough decisions, this is not for the faint of heart. I’m confident we will come together at the appropriate time and work things out.”

Del. Harry Bhandari, a Baltimore County Democrat, said Davis called him recently and asked for his support “on the floor” — an indication Davis is asking supporters to vote for him regardless of the choice of the Democratic caucus.

Bhandari said he hasn’t decided which candidate to support, but hopes McIntosh and Davis can come up with a compromise where “both are winners.”

McIntosh is now reaching to Republicans, too. On Monday, she acknowledged calling Republicans on the Appropriations Committee she chairs “as a courtesy” to assure them that she would be inclusive of their needs if elected speaker.

“I am not, in any way, shape or form, going to count on Republican votes to win my speakership,” she said.

But Del. Mike McKay, a Western Maryland Republican, said McIntosh solicited his vote.

“I had a really good conversation with her. She’s been my chair for six years; she’s the only chairperson that I know,” McKay said. “She … basically asked me to consider voting for her as speaker.”

It remained unclear Monday what would happen on the House floor.

Several Democratic delegates have posted statements on social media, pledging to back whichever candidate wins a closed-door vote Wednesday within the Democratic Caucus — whether it’s their favored candidate or not.

Del. Cheryl Glenn was one of only three city Democrats to stand with Davis at the black caucus news conference.

Glenn said in an interview that she’s been friends with McIntosh since the late 1980s and thinks McIntosh is as qualified as Davis. But she said there are no African-American Democrats who hold statewide office.

“I believe that we have to elect Delegate Davis so that we can collectively show the entire state and the constituents of the state of Maryland that the Democratic Party appreciates the diversity that we represent,” Glenn said.

In her letter objecting to the comments made about McIntosh, Boyce defended her as “a woman who has tirelessly supported me and so many others” in the General Assembly.

“She is someone I respect, someone who is a friend, and I believe she is an incredibly fair and honorable individual,” Boyce wrote.

In a Facebook post Monday, Sen. Mary Washington, a Baltimore Democrat, condemned “prejudiced and discriminatory comments” made about McIntosh.

“This campaign has become toxic to the Democratic Caucus, the Maryland Democratic Party and — most important — to the Maryland House of Delegates as an institution,” Washington wrote.

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