In the midst of a turbulent time in American politics and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Maryland’s state lawmakers convened their annual legislative session Wednesday.
The Democrat-led General Assembly plans to address a myriad of problems — from struggles brought on by COVID-19 to inequitable policing — even as the members take steps to prevent the spread of the virus in the legislature.
And they returned to Annapolis at a fraught time for American democracy, one week after a mob of Republican President Donald Trump’s supporters overran the U.S. Capitol in a deadly siege that interrupted the counting of Electoral College votes, and as another impeachment of Trump was under way in Congress. Maryland National Guard members woke up this morning in the Capitol after sleeping on floors to provide extra security ahead of the impeachment debate in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Let’s be very clear: This session will not be easy,” Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson told the chamber filled with nearly all of the 47 senators, each seated at desks surrounded by new plexiglass dividers. “We have the ability to deliver to Marylanders who are struggling like never before all of the support and help that they want, that they deserve and that they need.”
Lawmakers who reflected on the challenges they face acknowledged they were significant, but they were determined to remain undeterred.
“This is the building where George Washington resigned his commission. This is a building that has seen people stepping up in the face of crisis. And we’re going to step up in the face of the crisis and do the work of the people,” said Del. Eric Luedtke, a Democratic leader from Prince George’s County.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, I was so excited for today,” said Sen. Arthur Ellis, a Southern Maryland Democrat.
Lawmakers have so much on their plates, much of it driven by the pandemic and persistent inequities in society, he said.
“We sign up as elected officials to bring solutions as needed to our citizens ... We need to do what we have to do in the pandemic to remain safe and do the people’s business,” Ellis said.
The opening day of a 90-day General Assembly session typically has the feel of a first day of school, with lawmakers getting reacquainted after months apart. Lobbyists, activists and local officials descend on the capital to take in the air of democracy, press their causes and rub elbows with politicians. There are usually pep talks and plenty of grandstanding.
This year, the tone is more somber. Visitors are shut out of the State House complex and politicians and staff are mindful of coronavirus protocols.
“It looks like a ghost town here in Annapolis,” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday morning.
In the Senate, recently retired Republican Sen. Andrew Serafini of Washington County, called in to offer the opening prayer, appeared on a large video screen on the wall. Serafini wore a Washington Capitals jersey and switched the background of his video feed to a hockey penalty box, joking that the plexiglass walls matched his aesthetic.
Lawmakers, staff and journalists are subject to temperature checks and health questionnaires when entering the State House, and masks are required throughout the complex.
The House and Senate staggered the start times of their first floor sessions Wednesday to reduce foot traffic in the marble corridor between the chambers.
There were a few logistical hiccups.
The start of the Senate’s livestream briefly lagged behind the proceedings. And when Democratic Sen. Malcolm Augustine of Prince George’s County was the first senator to speak from the floor, remote viewers saw the wrong district listed and couldn’t hear his remarks.
At another point, Republican Sen. Robert Cassilly of Harford County stood up at his walled-in desk, asking to change a vote and complaining, “I can’t see out of this thing.”
In the House, about 20 members hadn’t confirmed with the speaker’s office that they would attend the first day, so there was no place for them to sit in either the main chamber or an auxiliary chamber in an office building down the street.
Those delegates had to stand in a hallway, with a staffer relaying the proceedings inside. When it came time for them to register their attendance and vote on rules changes, they walked single-file into the chamber to cast their votes by voice.
Del. Sid Saab, an Anne Arundel County Republican, was out in the hallway. He worried that the pandemic procedures, such as online bill hearings and the dual House chambers, will make it difficult for lawmakers to understand and debate bills.
“It’s totally different from what we’re used to,” he said. “We’re trying to get familiarized with the new process.”
Some newer lawmakers have never experienced the traditional pomp of opening day. Del. Chanel Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, was appointed last January, a few weeks into the 2020 session.
Like many Democratic lawmakers, Branch said she’s focused on overturning the governor’s veto of a sweeping education reform and funding bill and with providing economic help for families and businesses struggling in the pandemic-induced recession.
“We just have to do what we have to do to get the job done,” she said. “Although we’ve had these difficult times, I’m happy I’m able to still do my part and do what my constituents want me to do.”
Even without the normal crowds of lobbyists and packed schedule of receptions, advocates found ways to champion their issues.
The state teacher’s union and the advocacy group Strong Schools Maryland set up cardboard cutouts of children and educators — like the ones seen in stadiums during the pandemic — outside the House of Delegates building. They sought to remind lawmakers of “who they are fighting for,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, deputy director of Strong Schools Maryland.
The education groups are hoping the assembly overrides Hogan’s veto of the education bill and passes requirements to help students who have struggled with online learning during the pandemic, Gardiner said. Even in the pandemic, advocates must make their case for public schools, she said.
“The work must continue,” she said. “This issue does not go away. In fact, it gets worse.”
For the first time in five decades, the General Assembly gaveled into session without the presence of Democrat Thomas V. Mike Miller of Calvert County, the longtime former Senate president who retired last month as he fights cancer. Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who succeeded Miller as president, noted his absence after a half-century in the chamber.
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“I’m very confident that he is listening right now,” Ferguson said, and — adding with a laugh — “likely taking notes about what went wrong.”
Democratic Sen. Michael Jackson, who was a state delegate, was sworn in to take Miller’s seat representing Southern Maryland. Addressing a mostly empty chamber, Jackson called it a honor to follow Miller — “the lion of the Senate” — whom Jackson said had mentored him and recruited him to run for office.
House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones swore in two members who filled vacancies in her chamber: Marlon Amprey, a Democrat from Baltimore City, and Reid Novotny, a Republican representing Carroll and Howard counties.
She said there was no time to waste, and opted not to give a motivational speech to delegates.
“I want to thank each and every one of you,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “We’ve got the people’s business to do, so let’s get started.”
Hogan said he has “slimmed down” his requests for the legislature.
If lawmakers pass the state budget and his RELIEF Act — which would send checks to low-income Marylanders and enact other tax breaks — then “I’d call it a huge success and call it a day,” Hogan said in a live interview broadcast online by The Daily Record.