Publicly, there is no campaign to be the next speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.
Behind the scenes, Del. Maggie McIntosh appears to have it locked up.
As of Friday, according to multiple people familiar with the effort, McIntosh had more than 51 Democrats pledged to support her quest to succeed longtime speaker Michael E. Busch, who died a week ago. That’s enough votes to win a majority of the 98-member Democratic caucus and, if tradition holds, deliver the speakership.
If the Baltimore City Democrat wins what is shaping up to be a three-way leadership race, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay presiding officer in state history.
McIntosh, 71, declined to comment on the vote-whipping, saying she would not discuss the speakership until after Busch’s funeral on Tuesday.
For at least two years — since Busch’s 2017 liver transplant — she and other top lieutenants have maneuvered to wield the gavel he had held since 2003. They took the temperature of supporters, invested in colleagues’ campaigns and quietly built coalitions.
The unexpected death of the Anne Arundel County Democrat, after he was hospitalized for pneumonia, sparked a new round of delicate posturing just hours after his death.
“There’s a sense from some that it’s distasteful to be doing this at this moment, right after the speaker died,” said one Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly on the maneuvering. “I’m sensitive to that concern, but we lost our speaker, and we need to find a new one. We should do that as quickly as possible.”
The General Assembly adjourned late Monday but will return to Annapolis in the next few weeks, most likely on May 1, to elect a speaker.
A clandestine fight is expected to continue until then.
McIntosh’s closest competitor, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), also declined to comment before the funeral.
But his surrogates publicly marketed Davis on Friday, touting the significance of electing Maryland’s first African American presiding officer in the House.
At a news conference in Riverdale, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) called Davis, 51, a “fair-minded and balanced” leader who could lead as Busch did by governing with integrity and working with both sides of the aisle.
Davis, who is backed by many fellow Prince George’s County lawmakers, is widely viewed as more centrist and more friendly to business interests than McIntosh.
He won a closed-door straw poll of the influential Legislative Black Caucus. But the vote of the 45-member group was not unanimous, according to several people briefed on the results.
Currently, Davis’s only path to winning the speakership would involve winning a minority of votes from his party and then courting the 42 Republicans in the House in a floor fight.
Democrats hold more than two-thirds of the seats in the 141-member House, and the caucus traditionally supports whoever wins a majority of Democratic votes.
But Democratic observers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the divided Democratic membership opens the door for the minority party to make deals. “If I had 42 votes in the House, I’d be negotiating right now to say I’d like every vice chair to be a Republican,” one such Democrat said.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said Friday that the GOP intends to vote as a bloc for one of the Democrats but has not yet settled on whom.
The third candidate seeking the gavel is Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), who took the unusual step Wednesday of publicly announcing that she wanted the job.
In an interview, she said had no choice. As she called members to seek their support, she said, she learned there was a widespread perception that she didn’t want the job because she did not speak up when Busch’s health began to decline.
“It didn’t feel right to do that,” Jones, 64, said this week. “That’s how it got circulated that I wasn’t interested.”
Electing any of the three would be historic for Maryland, where only white men have been governor, Senate president and speaker of the House. All three candidates were elevated and coached by Busch during their careers, and multiple political observers said any one of them would provide a degree of continuity to his leadership structure.
Busch never expressed a preference for a successor, according to several people close to him. Since his death, his influential staff has also remained neutral.
“I think the only thing Mike would want is: Don’t rip the House apart,” said Alexandra M. Hughes, Busch’s chief of staff.
McIntosh, who joined the House in 1992, has drawn support among the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus and from a cross-section of lawmakers from the Baltimore and D.C. area, according to people familiar with the effort.
She has chaired two committees — Appropriations and what was then called Environmental Matters — and has been in leadership since 1995. She is known for her tough negotiating style and as a powerful cheerleader for Baltimore.
Supporters praised her emphasis on education and her ability to go toe-to-toe with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan or Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert), who has presided over the Senate since 1987.
“She won’t blink,” said one supporter, who discussed the matter on the condition of anonymity.
McIntosh came up through Baltimore City politics and worked for former U.S. senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D), including running Mikulski’s first statewide reelection bid, in 1992. Supporters say she would be well-positioned to help run the speaker’s statewide campaign operation, which is focused on keeping the Democrats’ big margin in the House.
“Maggie’s been working this for a decade,” said a Democratic observer who is neutral on the race. “It’s hers to lose, and she’s going to make sure that she doesn’t lose it.”
Since 2003, Davis has chaired the Economic Matters Committee, which oversees the regulation of businesses, alcohol and utilities and is involved in complex negotiations. He joined the House in 1995 and has been in leadership since 1999.
Supporters of Davis praise him as a low-key consensus builder who would continue Busch’s practice of cultivating and elevating talented lawmakers.
Del. Michael A. Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the Prince George’s County delegation, said Davis’s election would represent “a tremendous opportunity for us.”
Jones, meanwhile, had been Busch’s second-in-command for 16 years, but in a job that was largely behind the scenes until this year, when Busch was absent for the final three weeks of the legislative session.
She ran the floor sessions in his place. Jones says she had not considered seeking the top post until that experience, and she decided to pursue it because she thinks she can be an inclusive and positive leader. The Afro newspaper in Baltimore has endorsed her.
“I don’t want to look back years from now and say, ‘I wish I did,’ ” she said in an interview.
Jones, who joined the House in 1997, said she was seeking the support of the millennials and newly elected lawmakers in the caucus, alongside others.
Busch’s predecessor as speaker, Casper Taylor, said such open discussion is a departure from Maryland’s political tradition.
“Usually, it’s done very quietly and only to certain members,” Taylor said. “You don’t blab this stuff out publicly. You keep it somewhat secretive.”
Taylor, a Western Maryland Democrat and mentor to Busch, lost his legislative seat in a 2002 Republican wave, opening the door for Busch to replace him as speaker.
Busch said years ago that he started making calls to shore up support for his campaign for speaker while results were coming in on election night, hours before Taylor officially conceded his race.
In 2017, while recovering from the liver transplant, Busch — by then the longest-serving speaker in state history — said he did not begrudge people maneuvering to replace him.
“There’s always people who want to succeed the speaker, that’s the nature of the institutions,” Busch said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They have every right to position themselves. . . . I’m not going to be here forever.”
Rachel Chason and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.