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‘She knows how to get people to behave themselves’: Meet Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones

Maryland's House of Delegates speaker Adrienne Jones (D) had an unconventional ride to her historic victory. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

Nearly a decade before she became Maryland House speaker, Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) was at a meeting where a colleague made an offensive comment. Everyone in the room was taken aback. But no one said a word — except Jones.

“She just looked at him calmly and said, ‘Would you repeat that?’ ” Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) recalled. The other delegate recoiled, apparently ashamed of his misstep.

Barve said he has long since forgotten the “outrageous” comment but will never forget Jones’s understated style and how she uses it to seize control of a room.

“What can I say?” he said in an interview. “She knows how to get people to behave themselves.”

That skill is essential as Jones, 64, takes command of the House of Delegates, following a bitter battle in the Democratic caucus that pitted moderates against liberals, alienated some black lawmakers from white lawmakers and fractured the influential Legislative Black Caucus.

She emerged as the consensus choice Wednesday after Democrats, who control more than two-thirds of the House seats, deadlocked in dramatic fashion over two more hard-charging candidates, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).

Jones — who had dropped out of the race five days earlier to rally black lawmakers around Davis — was elected unanimously to wield the gavel, becoming the first woman and first African American to serve in the role.

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A widely respected, no-nonsense consensus builder, Jones has stayed largely behind the scenes for much of her 22-year legislative career. She shies from media attention — she did not respond to an interview request — and is known among her colleagues for strictly keeping confidences and gently doling out unvarnished truth.

During this year’s legislative session, she moved into the spotlight temporarily, filling in for ailing House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

And, in a quiet, soothing fashion, she guided the House during an emotional adjournment session less than 24 hours after Busch — a well-liked former athlete, teacher and coach — died at age 71.

“We had a coach,” said Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), referring to Busch’s nickname. “We might have a mother this go-round, and I’m not talking about some pushover mother either.”

Managing 'many hats'

Jones was born and raised in Baltimore County, where her family pushed for the integration of public county schools. She earned a psychology degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County in 1976.

A mother of two sons, Jones retired five years ago from Baltimore County government after a 38-year career that included stints as director of the Office of Minority Affairs, executive director of the Office of Fair Practices and Community Affairs and deputy director of the Office of Human Resources.

When Busch became speaker in 2003, he designated Jones speaker pro tem — essentially his deputy. As a senior and low-key member of leadership, she helped counsel newcomers about how to navigate the system.

“I jokingly and lovingly call her Auntie Adrienne, because she’s like everyone’s favorite aunt,” said freshman Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery). “She’s gracious and understanding but also unafraid to offer advice and constructive criticism.”

Jones also chaired the capital budget subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, overseeing state funds for construction projects. In that role, she forged relationships with nearly every delegate — anyone who wanted to bring money back to their districts needed to go through her.

“She wore many hats and managed them all,” said Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), who helped lead the effort to marshal support for Davis to become speaker. “This is new ground for her, being totally in charge. But she’s had the tutelage of Mike Busch.”

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Relatively unknown outside Annapolis, Jones is more of a status quo candidate than the revolutionary some liberal House members wanted. Longtime delegates and staffers describe her as a smart, deft manager who can shut down foolishness with a well-executed glance.

“Anyone who is looking to steamroll her is going to find out she is a strong woman,” Davis said. “Just because she’s not trying to go around trying to prove she’s the strongest one in the room doesn’t mean that she isn’t.”

Bowing out of the race

On Wednesday, the majority of the Legislative Black Caucus clamored for Davis, a business-friendly centrist who, like Jones, is African American. Liberals argued for McIntosh, who is white, and would have been the first woman and the first openly gay person to serve as speaker. Neither could secure the required 71 votes from Democrats alone.

The Democratic caucus deadlocked 58 to 40, with McIntosh ahead. Davis’s supporters were willing to break with tradition and join with the 42-member Republican caucus to elect him on the House floor. As McIntosh later told reporters, with tears in her eyes, she insisted the Democrats remain behind closed doors until they could unite.

McIntosh volunteered to step aside. Davis agreed to let debate continue, according to participants in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because caucus deliberations are supposed to be private. Tensions rose.

Some insisted the Democrats needed to elevate a black person to address a historic lack of representation in top positions. Others refused to back Davis on policy grounds or questioned whether as speaker he would be beholden to Republican interests.

About 2 p.m., hungry and exhausted, the delegates began floating the idea of finding someone else who also would be a historic choice.

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Del. Joseline Peña A. Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who is black and Latina, had been whispered about as such a candidate. But she gave an impassioned speech in favor of Jones. Quickly, everyone in the room agreed to back her.

In the span of less than 15 minutes, Jones went from the lawmaker who had humbled herself by bowing out of the race to the only person her colleagues would elevate.

“A woman of color who has done a tremendous amount of the thankless, invisible low-glory but in­cred­ibly important work behind the scenes for years is the one who walked away with the gavel,” Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) wrote in a celebratory post on social media. “It does my soul good.”

Jones is tasked with navigating a generational rift, a split between the more liberal and more traditional Democrats, and a racial and regional power imbalance — all heightened by the divisions laid bare in the caucus meeting and the public spats that preceded it.

“The question is: Did we just vote to maintain the status quo?” one Democrat said the day after the vote. “And, if we did, how long is that going to last?”

Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s), who is close to Jones, said the new speaker is well-positioned for healing.

“She’ll be a nurturer,” Gaines said. “She’s not always going to say yes. But if she says no, she’ll do it in a respectful way.”

After being sworn in, Jones told reporters she plans to ask newer members what needs to change in the House, perhaps shuffle committee assignments. But not immediately.

“Give me a chance to breathe a bit,” she said.

Editor's note: The headline on the story has been updated.

Del. Adrienne Jones becomes first African American, first woman to serve as Maryland House speaker

Historic, divisive Maryland Speaker fight headed for floor vote Wednesday

Maryland House speaker battle: ‘It’s “Game of Thrones,” Annapolis style’

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