clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Maryland just elected its first black female House speaker

The race was a bitter one that grappled with the intersections of race, gender, and political ideology.

Del. Adrienne Jones is pictured after the election.
Del. Adrienne Jones is pictured after the election.
Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post/Getty Images

This week, Adrienne Jones became the first woman and the first person of color to lead Maryland’s House of Delegates.

Her election Wednesday isn’t just a win for the state’s historically underrepresented black community; it’s also a microcosm of the tensions the Democratic Party is navigating nationally: from figuring out how to raise up the voices of different demographics to accepting that the burgeoning progressive wing can no longer be ignored.

Though Jones is certainly qualified for the position (she’s been a member of the House of Delegates since 1997, and speaker pro tempore for the past 16 years), if you had asked her the morning of the election if she thought she’d be the new leader of the House, she said she would have said no.

Jones had dropped out the speaker race last week as the conflict between two other Democratic candidates — Maggie McIntosh and Dereck Davis — intensified. Progressives backed McIntosh, an openly gay white woman, while the Legislative Black Caucus and Republicans backed Davis, a black centrist man. This bitter competition threatened to split the Democratic caucus up until the day of the election.

In an effort to keep the party unified, legislators compromised by uniting behind Jones: a well-respected politician who was liberal enough to make the progressives happy while still achieving the historic milestone of being the first black speaker in Maryland. Jones was elected to the position unanimously.

As speaker pro tem, Jones worked behind the scenes assisting the former Speaker Michael Busch, whose death in early April resulted in the speaker race. Over the years, she has backed bills that funded infrastructure projects and increased spending on education.

Although it might seem surprising that Maryland only now has its first black speaker when almost one-third of the state is black, the state has struggled to appoint black leaders to the House in the past, with only a handful of black politicians holding statewide offices over the past two decades. Black Democratic candidates have also lost the race for governorships for the past two consecutive cycles.

Jones’s victory marks a historic first for Maryland, even if the road leading up to it might have been rocky.

Jones’s election was a result of the bitter battle between progressive and moderate Democrats

As they have nationally, progressives have slowly been gaining prominence in Maryland’s Democratic Party.

Like elsewhere in the country, it’s partially because the state’s Democratic lawmakers are energized by the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, and have “a strong desire to be more forceful and move more deliberately, in a progressive direction,” St. Mary’s College politics professor Todd Eberly told Vox. But the more traditional wings of the state’s party still hold sway too.

So when Jones dropped out of the race, the progressive McIntosh and centrist Davis competed against each other. The two could not be more different. McIntosh played a crucial role in the state’s approval of same-sex marriage in 2012, while Davis voted against it. A progressive minimum wage bill, which McIntosh championed, was watered down by the Economic Matters Committee that Davis chairs and ultimately passed and signed into law by the Democrat-controlled government in March.

“[Davis is] sort of the face of the establishment or more moderate wing of the Democratic Party that held some of those progressive ideas back,” Eberly explained. “When you contrast between him and Macintosh, who is a very proud, very forceful, progressive voice in the Assembly, it really does bring those divisions more out into public than it typically would be.”

The conflict between the two deepened when Davis considered receiving support from the Republican party in order to get enough votes to become speaker, since a majority of Democrats had already pledged to vote for McIntosh. Maryland Democratic Party Chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings sent an open letter that warned him against it, as many were concerned that it would further divide the party.

The election of Jones, who is a progressive, represents a triumph for the left-leaning wings of the state’s Democratic caucus — but it was also a politically astute compromise to reconcile other divisions in the party.

Identity politics could not be ignored in a race where any candidate would be a historic first

Jones is the first black woman to be speaker. McIntosh would have been the first openly gay woman to hold the position. Davis would have been the first black man to do so.

In such a race, identity politics became an inseparable part of many lawmakers’ decisions about whom to support. Particularly among black members of the caucus, Davis’s and Jones’s campaigns for leadership were a rallying call. Jones dropped out of the race to unite the votes of the Legislative Black Caucus behind Davis, the other black candidate.

“This is a critical moment in the state of Maryland and our number one objective is to make sure the next speaker of the House is one of our members,” Legislative Black Caucus leader Darryl Barnes told the Washington Post. “We want to make sure we’re on the right side of history, and that it makes sense for us.”

LGBTQ activists backed McIntosh, emphasizing the need for representation in the government. Sean Meloy from the LGBTQ Victory Fund told the Washington Blade that McIntosh could encourage other LGBTQ lawmakers to step into leadership roles and help secure pro-LGBTQ laws in the state.

At both a national and local level, political spaces that have been traditionally dominated by white men are now seeing many different underrepresented minority groups fight to join and have their voices heard. During last year’s midterm elections, multiple people of color and women were running against each other in congressional districts primaries. The new freshman class of Congress became the most racially and gender diverse group ever to be elected.

With such a proliferation of candidates and so many groups overdue for representation, it can occasionally create tensions, however, which is what happened in Maryland. Barnes was accused of homophobic language targeted toward McIntosh in a closed-door meeting. According to an email obtained by Maryland Matters, Barnes said, “We are going to let a white lesbian be the speaker of the House?” Barnes has denied that he used such language, but the race for speaker had become so contentious that in the days before the election, some delegates hyperbolically described it as “Game of Thrones, Annapolis-style.

For Maryland’s state lawmakers, Jones became the obvious solution: a well-qualified candidate who ticked a number of historical boxes.

More importantly, Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes told the Washington Post, Jones’s election is a message to all young women of color: “African American women can ascend to positions of leadership, beyond always being second.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.