Wednesday marked the start of an unusual 2021 legislative session for Maryland’s General Assembly in Annapolis, with state senators isolated in transparent booths and capacity limited in the chambers to thwart the coronavirus.
What normally would be a bell-ringing, packed-house celebration of the General Assembly’s opening day at the State House was a more subdued affair this year.
The lawmakers were taking in the changes. The day would typically see a great deal of congregating, handshaking, chatter and television interviews being conducted in packed rooms and hallways. There was little to none of that at the State House on Wednesday.
The Senate set up plastic shields for individual members in lieu of distancing its members. The House of Delegates kept members 6 feet apart and only invited 80 delegates into the chamber to sit in on the business of opening day.
New senator in town
One highlight of the day was the move of Democrat Michael A. Jackson to Maryland’s upper chamber. On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced he appointed Jackson, previously a delegate, to fill the vacancy last December when Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. resigned from his longtime seat at the Maryland Senate.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Batlimore city), who succeeded Miller as the chamber’s leader in October 2019, administered the oath of office to Jackson.
During a telephone interview late Wednesday afternoon, Jackson told Southern Maryland News that he was “excitedly exhausted” by the day’s events.
“It’s an honor to follow in Mike Miller’s footsteps,” said Jackson, who added he will be serving on the senate’s judicial proceedings committee.
Jackson, who represented parts of Prince George’s and Calvert counties as a delegate, was the only name sent earlier this week to the governor’s office for consideration to fill Miller’s vacated state Senate seat for District 27.
The Democratic central committees of the three counties represented in Senate District 27 — Prince George’s, Calvert and Charles — each held virtual sessions over the weekend and Monday. In all three cases, Jackson won unanimous support for succeeding Miller as the district’s senator.
At all three sessions Jackson told the committee members that applying for the vacancy “is both bitter and sweet.” Jackson spoke of how the ailing former Senate president had recruited him for his successful run for the District 27B House of Delegates seat in 2014.
During Saturday night’s meeting of the Calvert County Democratic Central Committee, Jackson affirmed his six years of experience as a delegate, a stint as vice chairman of the Southern Maryland Delegation to Annapolis, membership on the House Appropriations Committee and service on several work groups regarding COVID-19 and education qualifies him to serve in the legislature’s upper chamber.
Speaking on behalf of Jackson, Doris C. Spencer, a former Calvert Democratic Central Committee chair, pointed out he was “born and raised in Southern Maryland” and has served in the U.S. Marine Corps and as Prince George’s County sheriff.
A resident of Brandywine, Jackson, 57, is a graduate of Crossland High School.
During the Charles County Democratic Central Committee meeting Sunday afternoon, another state delegate, Debra Davis (D-Charles), stated that Jackson possessed “strength, character and is a consensus builder. He has always been selected for leadership roles.”
When asked during that session how he would balance representing three counties in Annapolis, Jackson stated that during his time on the House Appropriations Committee he has discovered, “Maryland has ample resources for everyone.”
It’s time to do ‘the people’s business’
Del. Johnny Mautz (R-Talbot) said the invited members were selected in a lottery and he was not one of them. Mautz and about half of the 141 state delegates are expected to convene in a chamber annex this session for floor meetings.
While the circumstances were odd, even for a society that has been coping with changes related to the pandemic for nearly an entire year, the lawmakers got adjusted quickly and were able to care of some procedural business.
From their “penalty box-style pods,” as Sen. Steve Hershey (R-Upper Shore) called them, the group of about 50 senators voted to reelect Ferguson as Senate president.
The House side voted to reelect Del. Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) as House speaker, and Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Dorchester) as House speaker pro tempore. This year marks each member’s second year serving in leadership.
Before Jones approached the podium to address the members on Wednesday, the clerk announced that there would be a pause for the podium to be sanitized. Jones did not give a speech but said, plainly, “We’ve got the people’s business to do, so let’s get started.”
Of the increased cleaning measures and 360-degree plastic partitions around each senator, Hershey said it was “very confining, almost uncomfortable.”
“I found it difficult to communicate with my colleagues sitting right next to me or behind me,” Hershey said. Though he said he understands it’s best “under the extraordinary conditions.”
Despite sanitation and distancing having noticeably intensified since the assembly adjourned early in 2020 when the pandemic hit the state, one thing looked relatively the same: police presence inside and outside of the State House.
In light of President Donald Trump’s supporters’ recent storming of the U.S. Capitol and subsequent warnings of similar unrest at state capitals, there was an expectation that security might be heightened on opening day in Annapolis. Trump was impeached, for a second time in this term, on Wednesday evening at the U.S. House of Representatives for matters related to the insurrection.
Only a few police vehicles idled outside of the building in Annapolis. Inside and at the doors, there was what seemed like a regular security presence compared to past years.
With compounding crises occurring across the country and in Maryland’s neighboring Washington, D.C., Mautz said he feels “a heightened level of anxiety among everyone.”
He said he doesn’t expect the chaos from the Capitol to percolate into Annapolis, but he predicts there will be increased interest in state-level lawmaking this session.