Less than a month ago, a behind-the-scenes race to become the next president of the Maryland Senate was deadlocked.
Four prominent senators who had declared their candidacies behind the scenes were unable to gain a consensus on who should succeed the powerful Thomas V. Mike Miller, a state political legend who has led the Senate for more than three decades but is suffering from cancer and was considering stepping aside.
That’s when Sen. Delores Kelley intervened. The Baltimore County legislator, 83, is known as the “Dean of the Senate.” She’s also chairwoman of the Finance Committee.
Kelley called Sen. Bill Ferguson, a 36-year-old from Baltimore, and asked him to run.
Ferguson, Kelley said, had the skills and the smarts for the job and shouldn’t be discounted because of his age. His candidacy could break the deadlock, she argued.
Ferguson, the second-youngest member of the Senate, visited Kelley’s Randallstown home one evening and the two talked until 10 p.m.
“I thought, when I looked around, that we needed someone younger, someone bright,” Kelley recalled. “I thought it would be good having a person who had budget experience and legal background, a person who was more progressive. We met a couple of times at the house. Initially, he was a little reluctant to think that way. He wasn’t overly ambitious."
The president of the Senate is one of the most powerful positions in Maryland government, with the ability to appoint committee chairs and influence which legislation succeeds or fails. A more liberal Senate president could mean progressive change coming more quickly to Maryland, while a more conservative president could block or slow the leftward shift of the state.
Ferguson hadn’t offered his name as a candidate at first, but said the discussion with Kelley steeled his resolve to go for it.
“When the Dean of the Senate approached me about being the best person to lead a team of senators through this transition, it made me consider the possibility in a way I wouldn’t have previously,” Ferguson said.
Twenty days after Ferguson visited Kelley, in a closed-door meeting in Annapolis, the young Baltimore lawmaker became the unanimous choice of Maryland’s Democratic Caucus to become the state’s next Senate president.
What brought about that historic vote was a whirlwind campaign in which Ferguson and a small team of supporters, including the influential Kelley, worked around the clock to shore up votes.
Senators Douglas J.J. Peters and Paul Pinsky of Prince George’s County, Guy Guzzone of Howard County and Nancy King of Montgomery County were already in the race, but none had garnered anywhere close to the 17 votes needed to win the caucus.
Ferguson drove around the state to meet one-on-one with the other 27 of the state’s 32 Democratic senators. He didn’t promise committee seats. He didn’t try to horse-trade. He just laid out his argument for why he’d be the best Senate president and asked for their votes.
Looking at how Ferguson ran his race, Pinsky said he believed the Baltimore lawmaker would be a “transformational, not transactional” leader for the Senate.
“My theory of action has always been leading with values,” Ferguson said. “It’s how I approached this race and I believe it’s what other senators responded to most effectively. It’s not about where the Senate is today. It’s about what we want to be moving forward.”
Ferguson started his campaign at home, quickly shoring up support from most of the Baltimore delegation; then he brought on board several fellow younger, progressive-minded senators from other jurisdictions with whom he aligned ideologically.
Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick Democrat, recalls how Ferguson drove about an hour west to see him. Young said Ferguson’s pitch was solely about the merits of what he could bring to the job.
“He got in kind of late,” Young recalls. “Very frankly, I liked all that were running. I told him if they worked it out, I support whoever they worked it out for.”
With Ferguson’s behind-the-scenes campaign in high gear, Kelley called for a meeting of the dozen black members of the Senate. Many senators had simply been looking at a candidate’s county of residence to decide, Kelley recalls.
She considered Ferguson a great option because of his background as a lawyer, teacher and budget expert, and asked her fellow lawmakers to look at a candidate’s resume, not just his or her district. She never mentioned Ferguson’s name, but she had him in mind while talking, Kelley said.
“I really worked hard to talk to groups of senators who had not really looked at anything other than people’s names and what part of the state they’re from,” Kelley said.
About two weeks before Miller was set to announce he was stepping down, the Senate president called the five candidates to meet one-on-one with him in Annapolis. He told each of them he didn’t want to see a bitter succession fight divide the Senate as it did the House of Delegates earlier this year after the death of longtime Speaker Michael E. Busch.
The candidates would need to work out their differences among themselves and reach a consensus pick, Miller told them.
A concern among progressive lawmakers was that Peters, a conservative Democrat who cast votes against same-sex marriage and public funding of abortion, had emerged as a leading candidate. The more liberal senators believed the other candidates should team up to prevent a Peters victory.
Due to his campaigning, Ferguson had about seven votes in hand when he approached Guzzone to come over to his team, bringing with him his votes. Then, Pinsky joined with handful more.
Sen. Pam Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said she had been torn trying to decide between Ferguson and Guzzone when she got a call two days before the vote from Guzzone telling her he had dropped out and asking her to support Ferguson.
Beidle says Ferguson never promised her any position for her support.
“He talked about the ideas he has for helping the Democratic caucus. There was no talk of committee assignments,” Beidle said. “It was on the merits of why he should be president. We talked about education funding. We talked about how he’s a truly a big supporter of women’s rights and the #MeToo movement. He really does understand things that young women are going through today and that really impressed me.”
After Guzzone and Pinsky joined Ferguson, it was clear he had the votes to win, supporters say. Miller’s mission for the candidates to find a consensus pick had been achieved. Because Democrats hold a majority of seats in the 47-member Senate, their votes will determine who becomes president.
Kelley says she’s glad that after speaking with her, Ferguson “began to think more seriously” about running.
“He did not ignore anyone in the Senate,” Kelley said. “He went all over the state to see what people were thinking. People were appreciative of that. When it became clear what all the choices were, people could see he was a more vigorous campaigner. He did his own heavy lifting. To be honest, the best outcome we could have had is what occurred."
On Thursday, in the building in Annapolis bearing his name, Miller called the private caucus meeting. He told his colleagues he would be stepping down as Senate president when the General Assembly meets in January for its annual session, but staying on as a senator. Sen. James Rosapepe, presiding over the meeting, called for a five-minute break so candidates could submit their names to succeed Miller.
When they returned from the break, Rosapepe told the senators the election was over. Only Ferguson put in his name. With former rival Peters formally nominating him for a vote, the consensus was complete.