Maryland’s Republican state senators elected new, more conservative leadership Saturday as they prepare to debate education funding, policing reforms and how to help the state emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County was elected minority leader for the Republicans, while Sen. Mike Hough of Frederick County was elected as minority whip. Both votes were unanimous.
Simonaire, first elected to the Senate in 2006, said nearly half of all Marylanders are not members of the Democratic Party, and “they deserve a strong seat at the table” in the Democrat-led General Assembly.
Of the Senate’s 47 members, 15 are Republicans.
Simonaire said that since he was elected, he’s noticed that each election the Senate has lost moderate and conservative Democrats, putting “more daylight between the two parties.”
But Simonaire and Hough are also considered more conservative than the prior GOP leaders, Sen. J.B. Jennings of Harford County and Sen. Steve Hershey of the Eastern Shore. Jennings and Hershey stepped down from their positions after six years. Jennings and Hershey often used their positions to push for legislation that was more friendly to businesses and against tax increases.
Simonaire is known for his work against abortion and drew attention in 2018 when he split ranks with his state delegate daughter in voting against a bill banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth. Meanwhile, Hough, whose district also includes part of Carroll County, has advocated for tougher penalties for certain crimes.
Simonaire and Hough said, however, that they’ll try to work with Democratic leadership to find common ground on their issues.
“The Maryland Senate has always been a collegial body, and the only way to do that is if you listen to each other and talk to each other,” said Hough, who was elected to the Senate in 2014 after one term in the House of Delegates.
After their election, the two leaders held a 90-minute meeting with Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat.
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“I was very encouraged coming out of that,” Simonaire said. “We made it very clear that we’re going to work collaboratively, but we will have those battles where we disagree on policy.”
In a statement, Ferguson said he’s worked closely with Simonaire and Hough on various issues over the years.
“I look forward to working collaboratively to build a stronger Maryland, particularly as we face the challenging times ahead,” Ferguson said.
On top of policy and budget issues, state lawmakers will have logistical challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic when they convene in Annapolis in January for the 442nd session of the Maryland General Assembly. Legislative leaders are working out how to hold debates and votes safely and within pandemic restrictions. The previous session concluded more than two weeks early in March as the virus swept into Maryland.
The Republican senators met in person on Saturday to hold the leadership vote — perhaps the first in-person legislative meeting since March.
The senators and staffers, 17 people total, met in a large conference room in the Miller Senate Office Building, which afforded more space to spread out than the cramped caucus room where they typically meet. They underwent screening that is required for the few people who are allowed into the State House complex, including a temperature check and answering a questionnaire about symptoms and possible exposure.
“We were all very much of the mindset that we should physically go down and be able to talk to each other,” Hough said. “And if we’re going to do this during session, we should start now and figure out safe ways to do it.”