When Maryland’s state senators and delegates are called to order at noon Wednesday for the start of the 2020 session of the General Assembly, they’ll be looking up at two new presiding officers — the first change in the legislature’s leadership in 16 years.
Since 2003, the legislature had been led by a pair of gregarious and skilled politicians, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. They were often allies, sometimes opponents — and nothing major happened in Maryland’s State House without the influence of "the Mikes.”
But in an upheaval in Maryland politics, Busch died in April and Miller announced in October that he would step down as president as he continued treatment for metastatic prostate cancer.
Taking their place at the rostrum are a pair of leaders eager to make their mark in the General Assembly, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Sen. Bill Ferguson, who fellow Democrats have tapped to succeed Miller.
While Jones has stood at the rostrum, wielded the gavel and led House sessions plenty of times before — she was the speaker pro tem for 16 years — she thinks it’s going to feel different now.
“I’ve been presiding, but the fact is that the first day, Jan. 8, is going to be truly meaningful, in terms of all the 16 years as pro tem — now, it’s only on me,” she said.
Ferguson has been practicing in the empty Senate chamber as the session approaches, and has sensed a difference, not only in the chamber, but in himself.
“Something has changed,” he said. “And you just feel this sense of obligation to do right by the people of Maryland in a way that I felt before, but it’s so much more acute.”
The presiding officers run the full sessions of the House and Senate, guiding debate and calling for votes. But they also select the chambers’ leaders and committee chairs, and have the ability to set the agenda for which issues get serious debate and which bills head for the recycling bin.
Jones and Ferguson have been settling in since their surprise ascensions to the top posts while dealing with big changes in their chambers.
Ferguson had to restructure committees after longtime Baltimore County senators Shirley Nathan-Pulliam and Bobby Zirkin, both Democrats, announced their resignations.
And Jones had to clean up after the resignations of Democratic delegates Cheryl Glenn of Baltimore and Tawanna Gaines of Prince George’s County amid corruption charges. Gaines has been replaced with Nicole Williams.
There’s been other turnover, as well. Democrat Shaneka Henson replaced Busch in his Anne Arundel County seat. Democrats Eric Bromwell and Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County and Republican Andrew Cassilly of Harford County left the House for other jobs; they’ve been replaced by Carl Jackson, Cathy Forbes and Mike Griffith. Meanwhile, Democratic Del. Charles Sydnor has moved up to the Senate to replace Nathan-Pulliam.
Zirkin, Glenn and Sydnor’s seats will need to be filled.
“Both of us recognize the enormous challenge and responsibility that the next session poses for the two of us,” Ferguson said.
Jones was chosen as speaker by her peers in a roller-coaster campaign in the weeks after Busch died. Jones was Busch’s speaker pro tem, and often led the chamber when Busch was ill during the 2019 session. After Busch died, she guided delegates through their grief on the final day of the session.
Jones initially was one of three candidates for the speaker’s job, but bowed out when it was clear she didn’t have enough votes to win. When time came for the election May 1, however, Jones emerged as the compromise candidate after hours of intense, closed-door meetings among the Democrats.
She is the first woman and the first person of color to lead either chamber of the General Assembly.
Jones, 65, was born and raised in Baltimore County, graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and represents a district on the west side of the county. She’s retired from a career in public administration, having held various positions in human resources and fair practices for the county government.
Unlike her boisterous predecessor, Jones is thoughtful and reserved, carefully choosing when and where to flex her political muscle. Her colleagues warn that it’s a mistake to underestimate the soft-spoken Jones, who can deliver a calm, sharp rebuke if necessary.
In the months since winning the speakership, Jones has set about putting her stamp on the House. The first piece of art she brought into the speaker’s corner office was a portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, born in slavery on the Eastern Shore, on loan from the state archives.
In her first public move, Jones spoke out against a State House plaque that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, honoring Marylanders who fought on both sides of the war. The State House Trust voted to remove the Confederate flags from the plaque but keep the text of the plaque.
Jones adjusted the leadership structure in the House, selecting Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, a black woman who is the only Democratic delegate from the Eastern Shore, to succeed her as the speaker pro tem. And she set aside one deputy majority leader position for the freshmen delegates to select for themselves. They picked Del. Wanika Fisher, a Prince George’s County Democrat.
Jones also has been traveling the state, meeting with delegates and touring their districts. Jones said her goal was to develop a more statewide perspective on Maryland’s challenges. She estimates she’s visited about 80% of the state. Jones expects to draw on that experience in her first session.
“If someone is saying, ‘I’ve got this particular problem in my district,’ I’ve been there. I’m familiar with what they’re talking about. So, I think that just helps,” she said.
Ferguson, 36, maneuvered past rivals during a behind-the-scenes campaign to succeed Miller, once it became clear that the president planned to step down as president. Miller announced his intention to relinquish his gavel and Ferguson was announced as his successor after a brief and collegial closed-door meeting Oct. 24 of Democratic senators.
A former teacher who holds a master’s degree in teaching, as well as a law degree, Ferguson earned a reputation in the Senate as being smart on the budget and education issues, while also being unafraid to criticize Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Ferguson was raised in Montgomery County and now lives in southeast Baltimore.
He’s had less time than Jones to prepare for his role, and won’t officially take over until Jan. 8, when he’s expected to be elected unanimously as Senate president.
In the months since his nomination, Ferguson has walked a line between preparing to be the Senate president while not overshadowing the current Senate president. He’s often deflected questions by saying: “There’s only one Senate president at a time.”
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Still, Ferguson has taken some steps to prepare to take over. Like Jones, he embarked on trips around the state to meet with senators and learn about their issues. Some Republican senators touted those visits on their social media accounts. In meeting with Republicans, Ferguson was struck by how similar the challenges are.
“We get really focused on the differences between us, but all of us care deeply about the ability to serve the public,” Ferguson said. “I think even in the hardest times, the vast majority of what we do is together and is bipartisan and is thoughtful.”
And Ferguson shuffled Senate leadership, naming new chairs for two of the Senate’s four main committees. The Senate’s leadership team is now slightly younger and a bit more progressive than Miller’s team.
Ferguson has the added challenge of presiding over the Senate with his predecessor right there, watching his every move. Ferguson said he’s OK with that.
“I feel very grateful to be able to have him in the chamber to help guide and mentor and provide insights,” he said.
Ferguson has turned to Miller as a sounding board in the weeks since he was nominated to be president.
“Certainly, still we disagree on things,” Ferguson said. “But that’s the beauty of this work: You learn from others and then do the best you can.”