Maryland’s state legislators began their 90-day sprint of lawmaking on Wednesday, convening in Annapolis with hopes of making progress in addressing state challenges.
For the first opening day since 2020, the marble halls of the State House were packed with politicians, lobbyists, families and observers. The din of meeting and greeting made it nearly impossible to hold a conversation as lawmakers filed into their historic chambers at noon.
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley was happy to see the crowds returning to the state’s capital city, hopeful that they’ll visit the city’s restaurants and attractions.
“We love this time of year because people from all over the state descend on Annapolis and get to see what a great state capital we have,” said Buckley, a Democrat.
For the last two-plus years, coronavirus restrictions had the General Assembly doing a significant portion of its work online instead of in person. “The energy is exceptional this year,” Buckley said. “It really feels different.”
Inside the House of Delegates and Senate chambers, lawmakers began their sessions with ceremonies and formalities. They were sworn into office and elected their presiding officers.
Unlike the U.S. House of Representatives down the road in Washington, there was no drama in Annapolis. Senate President Bill Ferguson and House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones were both re-elected to their posts on unanimous, bipartisan votes.
Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, thanked delegates for trusting her to lead them. “It’s not something I take lightly,” she said.
She spoke about the importance of public service and said a top priority will be to “rebuild state government” and fill the thousands of unfilled positions across state agencies.
Jones said delegates would do their best to work in harmony to address the state’s problems.
“We respect each other. We work across the aisle and we work across the hall,” she said, referencing the Senate. “Plus, we start on time.” (The House convened at noon sharp, while the Senate didn’t gavel to order until 12:04 p.m.)
As Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat, nominated Ferguson as president, he noted the tensions on Capitol Hill, where it took days for the Republican majority to elect House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“I do not believe this is going to take 15 ballots to put you over the finish line,” Feldman said.
After being elected to his post, Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, referenced the historic register that legislators sign, marking their place in Maryland’s annals.
“Just as signing that book is the literal influence on our state’s history, on this bedrock institution, our chamber together with the new administration, and the chamber across the hall will chart a new course that is responsive to the needs of Marylanders,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson continued the metaphor: “As we turn a page on where we’ve been, it’s glaringly obvious that we are turning the page from our experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic that upended the status quo, and redefined Marylanders’ needs,” he said.
And while the Senate is returning to pre-pandemic logistical operations, Ferguson said the mindset won’t be the same. “It’s time to turn the page and write a new page in Maryland’s history,” he said.
The General Assembly continues to be dominated by Democrats, and next week they’ll welcome a new Democratic governor, Wes Moore, who will succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. With unified leadership, Democrats are hopeful that they’ll be able to move forward with their priorities, from setting up a legal marijuana industry with equitable opportunities to further protecting abortion rights.
It isn’t immediately clear what Moore will be asking from lawmakers, as he’s yet to reveal his legislative priorities.
During an interview at The Daily Record’s Eye on Annapolis Summit on Wednesday morning, Moore offered few hints when pressed by reporter Bryan Sears.
“January 19th is a working day,” Moore said, referencing the day after his inauguration next week.
Raising Republican voices
Republicans will have their work cut out for them, with their numbers diminished in last fall’s election and with Hogan exiting office next week. With Hogan as governor, he could — and did — veto bills he disagreed with. Even though Democrats could override nearly every veto easily, they had to drum up more votes to do so.
Sen. Stephen Hershey, the Republican leader in the Senate who represents portions of the Eastern Shore, said he’s optimistic that the minority party will have influence and be able to sometimes find common ground with Democrats. And when they can’t find common ground, Hershey said: “We’re going to provide that opposition.”
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said he hopes the influx of fresh members in the legislature will lead his colleagues to give “a fresh look” at some of the state’s issues. Kipke spent years leading the House Republicans before stepping back from leadership.
Despite the incoming governor’s different political party, he has high hopes.
“It’s a great opportunity for the new governor, on issues related to crime and public education, where we know we need reform,” Kipke said. “I’m hopeful that he’ll be an independent thinker.”
New faces, new responsibilities
For many in the General Assembly, returning to Annapolis was old hat. But there also are dozens of new members among the 188 seats in the legislature.
Freshly minted Del. Elizabeth Embry said being sworn into office was a moving experience. The Democrat won a seat representing Baltimore after previous bids for mayor and lieutenant governor fell short. She’s looking forward to digging into issues on the House Judiciary Committee, ranging from gun control to improving reentry services for people leaving prison.
“It’s so exciting. It’s a magical moment,” she said.
Across the hall, before new state Sen. Dawn Gile took her seat, she stopped to talk to the high school students who serve as pages, asking each how to pronounce their names. The Anne Arundel County Democrat’s first assignment from Ferguson is to be the Democratic chair of the protocol committee, a job that includes introducing the pages each week.
The opening day events made her feel “like a kid on Christmas.”
“It’s just a really wonderful feeling to be here,” Gile said. “And to feel that the people of District 33 placed their trust in me in order to represent them. I’m humbled and honored and just looking forward to get to work.”
A political fest
As in past years, politicians from across the state flocked to Annapolis for the opening day, including county executives and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.
As Scott made his way into the House chamber as a guest, he said he’s looking forward to the leadership combination of Moore in the governor’s office and Democratic presiding officers in the General Assembly.
“This is a historic time for our state,” said Scott, a Democrat. “We know that this is folks that are going to be unified in their efforts to move our state forward.”
For some of those politicians who started out in the legislature, it was a return to their old stomping grounds.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin was once speaker of the House of Delegates. He said the first day of the legislative session signifies nostalgia as well as opportunity.
“What this represents is a lot of people who really want to help other people. ... and are now in a position where they can make a difference,” said Cardin, a Democrat.
Other General Assembly alumni making their rounds included Attorney General Anthony Brown and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
Olszewski, a Democrat and former state delegate, said he felt a combination of excitement and nostalgia being back in the State House. He’s yet to unveil his priorities, but told reporters he hopes to secure more money for a school construction budget that’s been strained by inflation.
Olszewski also said he’s forging a strong partnership with incoming governor Moore.
“I think we’re all encouraged that there’s going to be an openness to have an exchange and we can share our priorities, share the concerns and challenges, and hopefully come together to find a way to address them,” he said.
Baltimore Banner reporter Callan Tansill-Suddath contributed to this report.