Newly elected Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch yesterday announced a leadership shake-up in Maryland's House of Delegates that consolidates power in the liberal wing of the party and builds on gains made by leaders from the Washington suburbs.
The leadership changes come as the Democratic-led General Assembly prepares to grapple with the first politically divided government in more than three decades when Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is sworn in as governor Jan. 15.
Most of the top leadership positions under Busch will be held by lawmakers from Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore -- the "big three" jurisdictions that make up the state Democratic Party's base and the areas where Ehrlich lost.
"There's a clear face-off," said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor who studies Maryland politics. "I think it means they are hunkering down."
Busch, who hails from Anne Arundel County, is viewed as more liberal than his predecessor, Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Western Maryland Democrat who lost his reelection bid to a Republican in a newly drawn district. Busch's team is a diverse group whose members include, for the first time, two African American and two female committee chairmen. Those positions are extraordinarily powerful in the House, where much of the real fighting over bills is done in committees and not on the House floor.
In a state where politics frequently pit lawmakers from various regions against one another in the fight for scarce resources, Busch's picks should help the Washington suburbs, whose lawmakers also have gained leadership positions in the state Senate.
Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) will become majority leader, replacing Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who will chair the Environmental Matters Committee.
Busch abolished a committee that had been overseen by Del. John F. Wood Jr., a conservative Democrat from St. Mary's County, and created a committee devoted to health care issues that will be chaired by Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery).
Del. Dereck Davis (D-Prince George's) will replace Busch as chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, an important panel with jurisdiction over the state's businesses.
Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery) will continue to chair the Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to deal this year with Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machine gambling.
Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) will continue to chair the Appropriations Committee. And last week, the House elected Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore) as speaker pro tem, making her the first black woman to hold the position.
Industry lobbyists said the new health care committee underscores the complicated medical issues that lawmakers face: a controversial plan to privatize the state's largest insurer, the rising costs of health insurance for businesses, and spiraling Medicaid costs that are contributing to the state's fiscal problems.
Busch said in a news release yesterday that Hurson's extensive health care background will help "as the state moves forward on this issue of growing public concern."
Not everyone was happy with Busch's rejiggering.
Wood, whose Commerce and Government Matters Committee was abolished to create the health care committee, said he has been offered a leadership position on a committee that reviews state agency regulations. But he declined to say whether he would accept the job.
"You always want to stay where you're at," he said, "but, unfortunately, that does not always happen."