The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former Maryland delegate Tawanna Gaines dies at 70

Longtime Maryland state delegate Tawanna Gaines leaves behind an admired and complicated legacy. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Tawanna Gaines, a longtime Maryland state delegate, died of bladder cancer early Saturday.

Gaines was diagnosed in early October after experiencing abdominal pains doctors had initially told her were caused by fibroid tumors, her son, Roger Gaines, told The Washington Post.

“She was ready to fight it,” he said. “That was the plan at first.”

Her condition worsened quickly and she died just after 1 a.m. at Doctors Community Medical Center, her son said. She was 70 years old.

Gaines worked her way up from a town council seat to state House leadership, building a reputation as a hard-working and thoughtful lawmaker — a record later dimmed by a federal wire fraud conviction that resulted in a six-month prison sentence.

Gaines got her start as a Berwyn Heights Town Council member in 1998 and was mayor of Berwyn Heights from 2000 to 2001. As a delegate, she was deputy majority whip from 2003 to 2007, vice chair of the Prince George’s House delegation from 2007 to 2008 and assistant majority leader in 2015.

She represented District 22, which covered parts of Prince George’s County, from Dec. 21, 2001 to Oct. 4, 2019. She hastily resigned from office two weeks before she was charged with federal wire fraud for using campaign funds for personal use. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced in January 2020.

Former Mount Rainier mayor Malinda Miles said in an interview that although Gaines should’ve known better, there was more to her story than her mistake.

“I would hope that people won’t remember the $22,000,” Miles said. “I hope they’ll remember all the 20 or 30 years she put in working for Prince George’s County.”

Outside the courthouse where she pleaded guilty, Gaines told reporters that she took “full responsibility” for her actions and encouraged the public not to judge other lawmakers because of her choices.

Her daughter, Anitra Edmond, who was the treasurer for the “Friends of Tawanna P. Gaines” campaign, also pleaded guilty to the same charge. Edmond declined an interview.

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Before Gaines faced a federal court, she had faced state investigators for flouting campaign finance rules, resulting in fines and a 2016 referral to the Office of the State Prosecutor, the state agency that oversees corruption.

Gaines’s fall from political grace was devastating to people of color and women for whom Gaines was a role model and advocate. She maintained close connections to municipal leaders after ascending to Annapolis and had ready ears to hear their concerns, Miles said.

Not only was Gaines available, she would boldly fight for her home county’s needs in Annapolis, Miles said.

Miles credited Gaines with spearheading moving highway user revenue, money that comes from a portion of gasoline tax that is used for local road maintenance, back to municipalities. Maryland lawmakers passed legislation in April. Gaines co-sponsored similar legislation in 2016.

Gaines was also a vocal advocate for investments in transportation and a key champion of the Purple Line. She was also passionate about expanding mental health access for low-income residents, Roger Gaines said.

She regained her spark in her last years when she worked for white hat lobbying firm Public Policy Partners, he said.

Tawanna Phyllis Gaines, born in D.C. on Feb. 1, 1952, was the daughter of World War II veteran David Shep Smith and homemaker Lucille “Bang” Smith.

She would later relocate to Prince George’s County, Md., where she married and had two kids, but she frequently visited her mom, who remained in the District, for home-cooked Sunday dinners, Roger Gaines said.

Gaines said he and his mother grew closer over the past two years as he served as her caretaker after she had a pulmonary embolism in February 2021.

The pair enjoyed laughter, difficult conversations and recipes he tried to perfect.

He will miss the warmth of her “to die for” baked macaroni and cheese. He’ll long for impromptu trips to Chuck E. Cheese with her grandchildren that seemed to double as a way to satisfy her own sweet tooth. He’ll remember the mother who packed and set up a tiny Christmas tree on a trip to Disney World with him and his sister so they could celebrate the holiday in 80-degree weather.

“My mother was selfless,” he said. “What made her happy is helping other people.”

Gaines is survived by her son, daughter and five grandchildren — Roger, James, Ansley, Darin and Aaliyah — as well as her sisters Gretchen Love, Lavita Walker and Pam Smith.