Just over half the members of Maryland’s influential Legislative Black Caucus appeared before reporters in Annapolis on Monday to endorse one of their own — Prince George’s County lawmaker Dereck E. Davis — as the next speaker of the House of Delegates.
The show of power was the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter Democratic fight to succeed longtime House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who died April 7. Caucus chair Darryl Barnes — like Davis a delegate from Prince George’s — would not say how many votes Davis had secured in the caucus, one of the largest of its kind in the country.
Davis is competing against Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who is white and was the first openly gay lawmaker elected to the Maryland General Assembly.
McIntosh has pledges of support from a majority of House Democrats, who hold 98 of the 141 legislative seats, with Busch’s vacant. But she does not have the 71 votes needed to win Wednesday’s election outright.
While in the past the Democratic caucus has united around whichever speaker candidate wins the backing of a majority of Democrats, Davis has said he may ask his Democratic supporters to join Republicans in voting for him on the House floor.
McIntosh also began reaching out to Republicans on Monday, calling people in leadership of the GOP caucus and rank-and-file members, according to people familiar with the phone calls.
It was the clearest sign yet that neither candidate is confident of winning enough Democratic votes to become speaker, and of the extent to which the competition is cleaving the legislature’s Democratic majority in two. It would be unprecedented in majority Democratic Maryland for a speaker to be elected with more Republican than Democratic votes.
“It’s fascinating,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College. “I don’t know of any other word for it, other than distressing.”
Eberly said Democrats across the country could face similar upheaval in a power vacuum like the one created in the House of Delegates, since the party’s support depends on a coalition of groups — women, minorities, immigrants, labor unions and LGBTQ communities among them.
Each group is “crucial to Democrats being successful at the ballot box,” Eberly said. “That puts tremendous pressure on Democrats to keep together their coalition . . . and in each of these groups, they are just too frequently being told, ‘Your turn will be next time.’ ”
Barnes said the ascension of a black lawmaker is long overdue in Maryland, where African Americans make up one-third of the population and nearly half the Democratic seats in the House. “We are beyond excited about where we are in this moment of time in history,” he said.
Davis said the race is “much bigger than me,” citing the names of other black lawmakers, including past committee chairs who never had a shot at the chamber’s top position.
“This is about inclusiveness,” Davis said. “This is about everyone having a seat at the table.”
McIntosh is generally considered the more liberal of the two candidates, while Davis is more of a centrist. But the contest is also about which lawmaker is seen by their colleagues as the most effective potential leader. Until now, the leaders of both chambers of the Maryland legislature have always been white men.
In addition to calling Republicans on Monday, as Davis has been doing for weeks, McIntosh’s supporters are planning a press event for Tuesday.
Both camps expect a public floor fight during Wednesday’s special session. House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) has said his 42-member caucus will vote as a bloc — but he has not said for whom. And Republican lawmakers interviewed Monday seemed to be considering both candidates.
McIntosh’s team is “asking for any vote they can get,” said one Republican lawmaker who received a call from McIntosh on Monday and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
The lawmaker said he was disinclined to vote for McIntosh, in part because of a letter circulated on social media by her Democratic supporters that said “a Speaker elected with majority Republican support cannot effectively lead our caucus.”
“I’m sitting here thinking, we’re equal members, but now we’re second class?” the lawmaker said. “To hell with them. I’m voting for Dereck.”
Another Republican lawmaker said he “really appreciated” McIntosh’s direct appeal. “She was trying to pitch herself as the best candidate for speaker,” the lawmaker said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation. “Each and every one of us has a vote.”
A delegate who has been whipping votes for Davis said he has more than 29 Democrats who have pledged their support in caucus and on the floor.
McIntosh has garnered pledges of support from about a third of the black caucus, bringing her Democratic vote tally to 60, according to people familiar with the effort. Most of that support comes from newer, younger members.
Last week, Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who is African American, dropped out of the speaker’s race and endorsed Davis. On Monday, Davis thanked Jones for “her sacrifice. . . for the unity of the community.”
But nearly 20 of the 45 House members in the black caucus did not attend the event in support of Davis, and Del. Regina T. Boyce, a freshman lawmaker from Baltimore City, resigned from the group Friday over the speaker’s race.
Boyce told Barnes in an email that she was upset by the caucus’s push to elect Davis, which she said included him mentioning McIntosh’s race and sexual orientation in a closed-door meeting on April 8.
“I was ashamed and embarrassed that our caucus could be so obsessed with having a ‘first black person’ in leadership that they would tear down someone else to express that desire,” Boyce wrote in the email.
Barnes said some Davis supporters were unable to attend Monday’s event. He denied disparaging McIntosh. “That’s not even me,” he said. “This process is starting to get ugly.”