The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could a first-term state senator build bridges? It was a constant struggle.

Maryland state Sen. Katie Fry Hester (D-Howard) in Annapolis in March as the Senate debates a $15 minimum wage bill. At left is Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Sen. Katie Fry Hester had trouble sleeping the night before the vote.

The General Assembly was deciding whether to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a $15 minimum wage bill. Fry Hester, a first-year Democrat from Howard County, believed in the necessity of a living wage but worried about the impact the pay increase would have on small businesses across the state.

“The question before the body is: Shall the bill pass, notwithstanding the objection of the chief executive?” Senate President Pro Tem Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) yelled from the rostrum.

Fry Hester stared at the voting board as her colleagues cast their ballots, straight down party lines. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the longest-serving Senate president in the country, sat watchfully at her side.

An agricultural engineer by training, Fry Hester, 44, is one of thousands of Democratic women across the country who decided to run for office after the election of President Trump. In the purplest legislative district in Maryland, she ousted a four-term Republican by 531 votes, backed by schoolteachers, environmentalists and gun-control activists.

Fry Hester arrived in Annapolis a self-described moderate Democrat, yearning to find common ground with Republicans during one of the most politically polarized times in the nation’s history. By the end of the 90-day session, she was calling herself a conservative Democrat, unsure how to legislate from the middle when nearly everyone around her seemed to be operating from opposite corners.

“There is a sound barrier between the left and right part of the room,” Fry Hester said in an interview. “I’ve got to figure out how to be independent.”

She was tempted to vote against the minimum wage veto override, joining GOP senators who said a $15 wage would lead to job losses and hurt places like the Dandelion Bistro in Glenelg, her informal campaign headquarters. Or Brenda’s Pizzeria, near Wisp resort in western Maryland, where Fry Hester and her husband, Bill, volunteer as first responders.

But Fry Hester, who joined liberal groups like Indivisible and Do the Most Good after the 2016 election, knew the wage increase was a step toward economic equity, a top priority for her party. After a moment of hesi­ta­tion, she pushed the green “yes” button.

When she stood to explain, her voice cracked and tears spilled.

“What we have to do is work together . . . to make sure that this is really going to lift all ships,” she told her colleagues. “Whether you are the person who works in the store, or the person who owns the store . . . this body owes it to the state of Maryland to make sure that we did the right thing.”

It was not the first time Fry Hester hesitated before a vote. And it would not be the last.

A newcomer to politics

A wife and mother of two young daughters who built a career as a sustainable development consultant, Fry Hester got involved in politics out of concern that the political divisiveness in Washington was spilling over into her community 40 miles to the north.

Some neighbors stopped speaking to each other after the presidential election. So Fry Hester and others created a small group called “Building Bridges,” hoping to bring civility back to their community. The mostly female and largely Democratic group met monthly, hosting an Earth Day event in 2017.

At the same time, Fry Hester campaigned against Republican Sen. Gail Bates, whom she saw as too conservative. Bates sponsored a bill opposing same-sex marriage in 2007 and had voted against many of Maryland’s gun-control restrictions.

Fry Hester was the only Democrat to oust a Republican senator in Maryland last year, though her party also defeated eight GOP incumbents in the House of Delegates.

Once in Annapolis, she learned partisanship is different there than in Washington. Republicans have drinks with Democrats after tense floor debates. Miller and Hogan are longtime friends. During orientation, she bonded with Sens-elect. Jack Bailey (St. Mary’s) and Jason C. Gallion (Harford) during a conversation about farming. “I didn’t even know they were Republicans,” Fry Hester said.

But the clashes still got ugly sometimes: Hogan denounced Democrats as pro-criminal when they refused to move some of his anti-crime legislation, and Democrats — who control more than three-fifths of each chamber — voted almost entirely as a bloc to strip power from a handgun-permit review board the governor appoints. Fry Hester thought opportunities to meet in the middle on key bills were often ignored in the name of party loyalty.

“Any type of coalition building takes time,” she said. “There’s that African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.’ ”

She sided with Democrats on some legislation that was challenging for her, hoping to garner support for bills to develop regional schools to jointly serve Howard and Carroll counties and allocate money for flood-damaged Ellicott City.

But she also supported a GOP proposal to vary the minimum wage in different parts of the state and offered an amendment to give certain small businesses more time to pay the higher wage. Both ideas were defeated by Democrats.

In March, Fry Hester was the target of an email barrage orchestrated by Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, which accused her of stalling a bill that would have tightened rules on gun access.

“Quite the contrary!” Fry Hester tweeted, hoping to stop the surge of criticism flowing into her inbox. “I’m working to make sure we get a common-sense bill that multiple parties can agree on without weakening its initial intent.”

The bill never moved out of committee.

Fry Hester also faced potential criticism from another part of her base when Hogan nominated Bates, her predecessor, to a seat on the state Board of Education. The LGBTQ community was “horrified.” But Fry Hester knew Bates would get majority support from the rest of the Senate.

Ultimately, she decided not to oppose the nomination. It was not worth angering Republicans, and many of her own constituents, who had voted for Bates for years.

“Nobody really understands all the calculations that I went through,” she said later.

A break from divides

Like most freshmen, Fry Hester rarely engaged in floor debates, opting to listen as her more experienced colleagues defended and opposed thousands of bills.

The youngest mother in the Senate, Fry Hester said she wanted Sierra, 13, and Alexa, 9, both of whom accompanied her to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, to feel empowered by the work she was doing.

And so, on Day 28 of the session, the children of Republicans and Democrats held a mock legislative hearing, ate pizza and later watched their parents from the gallery.

It was a rare event that was truly bipartisan, Hester felt. But the divides soon reemerged.

A foam ban vote, for example, also broke almost straight down party lines, with one Republican voting for the ban and one Democrat voting against it.

Fry Hester wanted to protect the environment. But she worried the ban might hurt farmers, including those in her district. Bailey, her Republican friend from orientation, pushed to allow farmers to keep using foam egg containers. Fry Hester sided with her party but promised to keep the opposing view in mind.

“We could do something next year to help any egg farmers who need to transition to different kinds of materials,” she said after the vote. “I’m putting that out there as an offer, and I’m proud to vote green.”

Unlike most Maryland lawmakers — who come from solidly blue or solidly red districts, in part because of gerrymandering — Fry Hester represents a place where 41 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 34 percent are Republican and 23 percent are unaffiliated.

“She has so many different constituents,” said Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), who sat next to Fry Hester on the floor. “She is constantly in a weighing process.”

'Work to be done'

When Fry Hester explained her vote on the minimum wage bill, she also proposed a compromise of sorts, offering to work with her colleagues to study ways to help small businesses in coming years.

Five other senators Democrats Brian Feldman of Montgomery and Guy Guzzone of Howard, and Republicans Mary Beth Carozza of Wicomico County, Andrew Serafini of Washington County and Chris West of Baltimore County agreed to participate. They plan to look at tax credits, incentives and “the very definition of small business in Maryland laws.”

But Fry Hester was surprised and disheartened by the reaction of Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford), who had met with her on a couple of occasions to offer help in maneuvering through Annapolis.

Jennings said he wishes her all the best with the bipartisan group. But he is not a part of it. And his advice for the next time she struggles over an issue like the “Fight for $15”?

“Just don’t vote for the bill.”

Since the session ended in early April, Fry Hester has caught up on sleep, gone on a family vacation to Mexico and met with constituents to discuss what she got done.

“People were impressed that we brought so much money home,” Fry Hester said, referring to a grant that she and her district mate, Del. Courtney Watson (D-Howard), secured for Ellicott City.

She hopes to focus next year on mental and behavioral health, child safety and small businesses and to continue building bridges in her community until then.

In some ways, Fry Hester said, her constituents have become “numb” to political conflicts in Washington. The partisan divide over issues such as immigration, abortion and guns, she added, is “not as shocking anymore.”

Her Building Bridges group has not met so far this year, but it expects to over the summer.

“I don’t know what we can do yet, but I have a couple of months to think about it,” Fry Hester said. “There is work to be done.”

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