ANNAPOLIS — A new era dawned on the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 8 with rising Democratic leadership impressing upon fellow lawmakers that now was the time to move forward together for the state’s future.
The lawmakers descended onto the statehouse with family members in tow to celebrate a historic changing of the guard. Adrienne Jones, D-10-Baltimore County, became the state’s first African-American and first woman to preside over the House of Delegates. And Bill Ferguson, D-46-Baltimore City, was elected as Senate president.
Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, stepping in for Gov. Larry Hogan who was presiding over a Board of Public Works meeting, welcomed Jones after she was sworn in with the historic title Madam Speaker.
“It is great and is an honor to say,” Rutherford said. “This truly is a historic day, not just for this body, but for the entire state of Maryland.”
Since 2003, the legislature was led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Busch died last April, and Miller, battling cancer, announced last fall that he would step down as leadership and serve as a senator on the floor.
Jones, who served as speaker pro tempore for 16 years, was visibly emotional as she paid tribute to Busch. In her inaugural opening address, she ascended to the position with “a clear vision for the way forward but also with a heavy heart.”
“Too soon, we lost a giant in Maryland government, an ultimate public servant and an honorable man in Michael Erin Busch,” she said, her voice cracking. “I worked with Mike for 16 years and, together with many of you, we built the foundation on which we stand.”
She also recognized Busch’s family on the floor, who were greeted with a standing ovation from the House of Delegates.
Jones said she remains committed to Maryland children, with hopes of funding sweeping education reforms for public schools and school construction. Across the hall, Ferguson echoed Jones’ thoughts about leveling the funding field for schools so it’s not negotiated based on ZIP code.
Jones said that during her statewide tour earlier this year to prepare for her new leadership role, she visited a school that could not open its doors.
“If we cannot ensure that every school in our state can open its doors and be ready to provide a world-class education to our children, we are failing,” she said to applause. “That’s why we’re making school construction and education funding our top priority — so every child across the state has the opportunity to succeed.”
In a continuing symbol of the changing times, delegates voted unanimously for Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-37A-Wicomico, as speaker pro tempore, the number two spot in the House. Sample-Hughes is the sole African-American delegate from the Eastern Shore.
Senate minority whip Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, opened the session with cautious optimism for the path forward through compromise.
“There has always been a certain pride that we are more open minded, more willing to compromise, and we’re willing to do the hard work necessary to reach those consensus,” Hershey said in a speech in the Senate.
“Under the new leadership we should all hope that that continues,” he said. “We have to recognize that none of us are campaigning this year — and that we’re here just to do the work that is meaningful and important to all Marylanders.”
In his address to the House, Rutherford also harkened to this history of bipartisanship, noting that the leadership will continue that “gentle guiding hand of Speaker Busch.”
In the closing comments of her address, Jones stressed that the lawmakers need to continue a legacy of “putting people first” and finding solutions for the Maryland people.
“This is a new day but our goals remain the same,” she said. “Whether Democrats or Republicans, we do the best work on behalf of the people we serve.”