ANNAPOLIS, MD - NOVEMBER 8: Del. Sheila Hixson, 84, who has served in the Maryland General Assembly for more than four decades, in her office on November, 08, 2017 in Annapolis, MD. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It was only supposed to last two years.

Sheila E. Hixson was a divorced mother of four when Democratic Party leaders asked her in 1976 to fill a seat being vacated by a Montgomery County delegate-turned-judge. A longtime party loyalist, she didn't hesitate to step in.

“They said ‘Just take it for two years, Sheila, and then we’ll get someone else to run,’ ” Hixson recalled. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Hixson, 84, is now the longest-serving woman in the Maryland General Assembly (two men, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s), have been there a year longer).

At a ceremony this week where she was honored by Democrats and Republicans alike, she announced that she won’t run again in 2018, making the legislative session that begins in January her final one.

Hixson, a petite woman with a slight Midwestern accent, still sports high heels but walks more slowly these days. At times, she can be forgetful. But she is still a force to be reckoned with in the boisterous, male-dominated world of Maryland politics, as speaker after speaker noted during the tribute Tuesday night.

“She’s a politician who looks for and establishes relationships and trust and uses that as political capital,” said Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who as a state lawmaker earlier in his career served in the Montgomery County delegation with Hixson.

Hixson, who lives in Silver Spring, built a career as a feisty advocate for women and children and a persistent voice for gay rights. She joined the General Assembly when women made up just 10.6 percent of the legislature. Today, they are 30.3 percent, with a whole new generation of women running for both state and local office in the wake of Democrat Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 presidential election.


Del. Sheila Hixson, 84, in her office in Annapolis, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

During more than four decades in office, Hixson experienced her share of difficulties, including a drunken driving conviction in 1983, a cancer diagnosis and the deaths of two children, one from cancer and the other from suicide.

She prefers to reflect on her achievements, however, including creation of a sexual harassment policy for elected officials nearly 25 years ago, and a successful push for private restrooms in the statehouse for female lawmakers, just like the male lawmakers had.

Longtime lobbyist Gerry Evans, who grew up in Hixson’s legislative district calls her “the grande dame of Annapolis,” and notes that she rarely missed legislative sessions, even when undergoing treatment for colon cancer in the early 199os.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a 30-year lawmaker, describes her as “a trailblazer.”

Hixson served nearly a quarter century as chairwoman of the powerful House Ways and Committee, which she ran in no-nonsense fashion.

“She was old school politics,” said Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Montgomery), who was a legislative page the year Hixson joined the legislature. “And when you got her Irish up, it’s hard to get back in her good graces.”

Hixson, who once worked as a Head Start teacher, often equated her chairmanship to teaching pre-kindergartners, said Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery), whose first assignment while serving in the House of Delegates was on Ways and Means.

“She would make sure they were fed and happy, and they would do what she wanted them to do,” King said with chuckle. “If she believed in a bill, she would find a way to get it passed for you. But if she didn’t, she'd find a way to kill it, too.”

Her signature toast, according to Evans, was: “Here’s to those who wish us well, all the rest can go to hell.”

Hixson's first taste of politics came in the 1960s, when she work as campaign manager and then an aide to U.S. Rep. William D. Ford of her native Michigan. She was an administrative assistant for the Democratic National Committee at the time of the Watergate break-ins, and received an unwanted moment of celebrity years later, when Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy made unfounded allegations that the break-in was intended to conceal a prostitution ring in which Hixson participated.

She says she joined the General Assembly at a time when men did not expect women to accomplish much in Annapolis or to remain in office long.

“We were ignored,” Hixson said. “It was as if we didn’t exist.”

Unlike the men, female delegates did not have their own restrooms in the statehouse, and had to walk across the concourse to the public bathrooms. When Del. Pauline Menes (D) complained, then-House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe presented her with a toilet seat and named her “chairman” of the women’s restroom committee.

“I know this sounds so trivial now, but it was pretty important at the time,” Hixson said Hixson, who along with Menes eventually succeeded in getting private restrooms for female delegates.

It was never really about bathroom fixtures, she said.

It was about making the good-old boys recognize that there were women in their midst, women who deserved to be heard.

And it was a turning point for women in Annapolis.

“They listened to us after that when other issues came up,” Hixson said. “It was more than us getting potty parity, they let us into meetings, and they listened.”

Nearly 20 years after taking office, Hixson was named chair of Ways and Means, one of the first women to head a major committee. Part of her success, according to Dumais, was her ability to join the mostly male, often alcohol-infused culture of after-hours lobbying and schmoozing in Annapolis.

“She was able to play with the big boys and not tolerate any negative comments,” Dumais said. “I don’t like to call it partying, but she made sure if the guys were going out, she was going out so she was part of [the discussions].”

It was during the 1983 legislative session that Hixson spent an evening dining and drinking with her brother and a family friend in Washington, D.C., before getting pulled over at 2:35 a.m. in Montgomery County as she drove home. She failed multiple roadside sobriety tests, pleaded guilty to driving while under the influence of alcohol and was ordered to pay a $250 fine and take an alcohol education course.

An even more painful low point was the 2009 suicide of her son, Todd, who served in the Marine Corps intelligence unit. “We don’t know what his demons were,” Hixson said, her eyes filling with tears.

As she looks toward retirement, Hixson said, she hopes to be remembered for promoting a liberal agenda, which she was able to do because her constituents are among the most progressive in the state.

“I tried introducing . . . legislation that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a hearing, making sure issues that needed to be heard were heard,” she said. “These days, new delegates will come in and say I’ve got this great idea for a bill and my staff will say: ‘Sheila put that in 20 years ago.’

“Not that I’ve been around too long.”