Her ascension has particular resonance in Maryland, a politically progressive state that until Wednesday had not elevated a woman or a person of color into the top tier of power in the state capital.
“Wow,” Jones (D-Baltimore County) said minutes after her election, running her hands along the polished rostrum. “I didn’t think I would be here when I left out of my house this morning.”
The unanimous vote followed weeks of bruising public spats and clandestine maneuvering in Annapolis as Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), an African American centrist, competed for the post against Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), a white liberal who was the first openly gay lawmaker in the General Assembly. Their historic race divided House Democrats along ideological and racial lines.
Once the caucus agreed to choose Jones, McIntosh was given the role of nominating her for the speakership, gesturing as she did so at the portraits of previous speakers that hang in the House chamber.
“These walls will never be the same,” McIntosh said.
Davis seconded the nomination.
“ ‘House of Cards’ has nothing on us. Talk about high drama,” Davis quipped before directly addressing Jones, who had given up her quest for the speakership on Friday in hopes of marshaling the Legislative Black Caucus more solidly behind Davis.
“You were willing to step aside for me,” Davis said, “and I’m honored to step aside for you.”
The House then gave Jones a standing ovation.
Maryland has no women and few people of color in its congressional delegation, even though nearly a third of the state’s population — and almost half the House Democratic Caucus — is black.
After the unexpected death of longtime speaker Michael E. Busch on April 7, electing an African American speaker became a priority for most black lawmakers. The vacant speakership also became a growing source of division as progressive groups and left-leaning lawmakers sought a leader more liberal than Davis.
“We have always been loyal to the Democratic Party,” said Del. Benjamin T. Brooks Sr. (D-Baltimore County). “Now it was time for the Democratic Party to be loyal to us.”
McIntosh won a vote in the Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning by 58 to 40 — too few votes to assure victory in the 141-member chamber.
Davis had secured the support of the House Republican Caucus. He was prepared to fight for the speakership on the floor of the House and preside with support from a minority of Democrats, a scenario that would have been unprecedented in deep-blue Maryland.
Aghast at the possibility, Democrats stayed behind closed doors long past the scheduled noon vote, until they could coalesce around a candidate who could win on the strength of Democratic votes alone.
McIntosh and Davis eventually offered to step aside if Jones were the nominee.
After Jones won the unanimous support of Democrats, Republicans followed suit on the House floor.
“She has been a great friend to us,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel). “Our members have great affection for her. We know this is going to be something we can all be proud of.”
Jones is the third African American woman in the country to serve as a presiding officer in a state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), became the first to serve in the role when she was elected in California in 2008.
Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Wicomico), the immediate past president of the Maryland Women’s Legislative Caucus, said Jones’s selection sends a message to young women of color across the country, “that African American women can ascend to positions of leadership, beyond always being second.”
“Our nation is so divided, but what this shows is that there is still hope,” Sample-Hughes said. “I did not know that we were going to come to this place today and walk out the door with an African American female” as speaker.
Jones, a member of the House since 1997, has worked for Baltimore County government for nearly 40 years. She lives in Woodstock, Md., and has two adult sons.
She serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which McIntosh chairs. As House speaker pro tem for the past 16 years, Jones was second-in-command to Busch.
But while McIntosh and Davis were top lieutenants of the speaker’s who held visible roles chairing influential committees, the job of speaker pro tem was largely behind the scenes. That changed this year, when Busch was ill and missed the final three weeks of the legislative session. Jones ran the floor sessions in his place.
She has said she did not consider seeking the top post until that experience, but then decided to pursue it because she thought she could be an inclusive and positive leader.
“I don’t want to look back years from now and say, ‘I wish I did,’ ” she said in an interview last month, before she dropped out to support Davis.
The competition between Davis and McIntosh deeply divided House Democrats and the Legislative Black Caucus, with many older and more centrist lawmakers — especially from Prince George’s — backing Davis, and the more liberal and younger flank of the chamber supporting McIntosh.
Progressive groups threatened to support primary challengers against Democrats who did not back the caucus nominee. Black Caucus leaders insisted that having an African American speaker was long overdue.
“We did our job,” Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), the caucus chairman, said after Jones was sworn in. “I’ve been fighting. I’ve been taking hits to ensure that we get an African American to be the next speaker, and we did that. It just so happens that its twofold for us, it’s a woman and it’s an African American. So I’m extremely excited where we are for the state.”
The Democratic and Republican caucuses began meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday. At times, the Black Caucus broke away from the Democratic Caucus to meet separately, then returned.
Republicans scrambled to make sure their bloc was at full force. One lawmaker flew back from a vacation in Seattle to make the vote; another flew back from Tennessee. A third delayed a vacation to be in town, Kipke said.
The Senate convened at noon, gaveling in as a formality so that the House could legally vote.
While the private caucus meetings continued, dozens of reporters, advocates and political observers stood in the hallway awaiting developments.
“History, history,” said prominent Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy as members of the Black Caucus headed back to the Democratic Caucus room after the secret ballot.
“It’s a good day for history,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles), a Davis supporter. “It’s not over, but I’m proud of the people here.”