The Maryland Legislative Black Caucus is planning a more aggressive posture in 2017, determined to push back when needed against the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, the election of Donald Trump as president and what caucus members see as continued inequities for the state’s African American residents.
Lawmakers say they will fight hard to expand police and criminal-justice policy changes that passed earlier this year, in part by trying to eliminate cash bail, demanding equity in the state’s new medical marijuana industry and seeking to ban suspensions of pre-kindergarten students.
“We are really working overtime to make sure that we are ready for Day One of opening session,” said Del. Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), who was elected president of the caucus at the end of the last legislative session. The bitter and divisive presidential election, she said, “just underscored why it is so very critical that the caucus is organized, respected and relevant.”
Concerns about medical marijuana center on the lack of African American ownership among companies that won preliminary growing licenses in the summer. The state’s medical cannabis legalization law calls for regulators to “actively seek to achieve” racial and ethnic diversity in selecting cultivators in a state that is 30 percent African American.
“It’s a billion-dollar industry and we’re not going to allow that to start up and flourish in Maryland with no African American participation,” Glenn said. “Especially given the history of the incarceration of African Americans over the years because of marijuana. And so now that it’s legal for medicinal purposes we can’t have any part of that business? That’s ludicrous, and it’s unacceptable.”
The caucus advocated for passage of the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, which shifts the sentencing focus for nonviolent drug offenders from incarceration to treatment. But Glenn said those changes are just the “tip of iceberg.”
During the 2017 legislative session, freshman Del. Erek Barron (D-Prince George’s) plans to push for changes to the state’s money-based bail system.
Del. Will Smith (D-Montgomery), another freshman, said he will sponsor a bill to end suspensions for pre-kindergarten students. The penalty has been cited as a factor in the “opportunity gap” in public schools.
Black children made up nearly 50 percent of all out-of-school preschool suspensions, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, even though African American youngsters make up a much smaller percentage of the preschool population.
“When you suspend students you not only place a hardship on the parents but you start a cycle, the early pattern of the school-to-prison pipeline,” Smith said.
The black caucus was created in 1970, toward the end of the civil rights movement, by 17 lawmakers from Baltimore and Prince George’s. This year’s caucus has 47 members — more than 20 percent of the legislature — from jurisdictions across the state. All members are Democrats.
Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said the caucus’s role was “magnified” after Hogan (R) became governor, ending eight years of all-Democratic rule in Annapolis.
In February, the caucus called some of Hogan’s policies “an assault” on black communities. They blasted the governor for his decision to kill the Red Line light-rail project in Baltimore and fund transportation projects elsewhere and for withholding extra money for schools in Baltimore and Prince George’s.
Hogan strongly disputed the criticisms, saying his administration is still funding Baltimore and Prince George’s at significantly higher rates than other parts of the state.
Others attribute the new energy in the caucus to the election last spring of Glenn, 65, a former community organizer, and to the presence of younger delegates who took office along with Hogan in 2015.
Under Glenn’s leadership, lawmakers say, the group has become more organized and appears to be recognizing its power as the largest caucus in the legislature. Glenn organized summer meetings on key issues and held a first-ever day-long public hearing so advocates and members of the public could weigh in on what the caucus should include on its agenda.
Glenn said she will follow up in meetings with Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore City), a ranking member of the Senate and caucus member, said newer members of the caucus “have been more aggressive about looking for change, advocating for change and talking about how we move forward as a more respected and positive influence.”
The 70-year-old lawmaker said a new generation that includes Barron, 42, Smith, 34, and Del. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County), 42, has generated fresh urgency for addressing economic disparities, “dysfunctional” schools and continued violence in black communities, despite decades of political gains.
“I think it’s great. We’re headed in a different direction,” McFadden said.
The first-term caucus members, he added, remind him of pioneering black lawmakers such as Clarence W. Blout (D-Baltimore), the first African American majority leader of the state Senate, and Clarence M. Mitchell III, a delegate and senator from Baltimore who helped guide a desegregation measure through the General Assembly.
“Real change agents,” McFadden called them, “who not only opened the door, but sometimes kicked it down.”