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Racial divisions laid bare in historic vote for next Maryland Speaker of the House

From left, Maryland Democratic Delegates Maggie McIntosh (Baltimore City), Adrienne Jones (Baltimore County) and Dereck E. Davis (Prince George’s County).
From left, Maryland Democratic Delegates Maggie McIntosh (Baltimore City), Adrienne Jones (Baltimore County) and Dereck E. Davis (Prince George’s County). (Mark Gail For The Washington Post, Steve Ruark/AP, Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

BALTIMORE — One of the two black state lawmakers running to be the first African American speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates dropped out of the race Friday, throwing her support behind her rival and cementing the contest for the gavel into an unusually public fight between black leaders and white progressives.

House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) ended her bid and announced an alliance with Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), saying black support to elevate a black speaker was paramount.

“People are in difficult times, and unity must outweigh politics and pride,” she said during a news conference at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.

“It is for that reason that I’m calling for the Legislative Black Caucus to unite and join me in supporting Delegate Dereck E. Davis as the next speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates,” she said.

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) is running to be the first black Speaker of the House of Delegates in Maryland. (Video: Erin Cox/The Washington Post)

Jones and Davis are two of the three veteran lawmakers seeking to replace the late Michael E. Busch, who served as House Speaker for 17 years before he died April 7, the day before the legislature’s 90-day annual session ended.

Maryland House ends session in mourning for longtime leader

Jones’s decision to drop out of the race leaves Davis, who serves as the chairman of the Economic Matter Committee, and Del. Maggie McIntosh, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, in a face off during next week’s election.

Maryland Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) dropped out of the race for Maryland's House of Delegates speaker on April 26. (Video: Erin Cox/The Washington Post)

The election will be held Wednesday during a one-day special session of the General Assembly.

Davis told reporters that he wasn’t running to represent only Democrats or the Black Caucus, but his ascension would be nonetheless be an important symbol for African Americans, who make up roughly a third of the state's population and have been a bedrock of the state's Democratic Party.

“We have embraced the party. It’s time for the party to embrace us,” he said. “At some point, it’s not good enough for us to hold the number two and the number three positions. At some point, the party has to support us, has to support our community and know that we can be leaders as well.”

McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who is white, has shored up progressive support from a majority of the chamber’s 98-member Democratic caucus, according to multiple people familiar with the vote count.

McIntosh’s election would also be historic; she would be the first woman as well as the first openly gay speaker.

Maggie McIntosh leads behind-the-scenes race to be Maryland House Speaker

If elected, McIntosh said Friday that she would elevate more African Americans to leadership posts, including replacing some longtime Maryland politicians such as Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who is white.

“It’s time to have blacks in statewide office,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I am very supportive of having a black treasurer and more black chairmen.”

Right now, Davis is the only black chairman of the House’s six standing committees.

“We should have three,” she said.

While Davis won a closed-door straw poll of the state’s 45-member Black Caucus, his support was not unanimous, and some black lawmakers back McIntosh, according to several people familiar with the results.

Beyond identity politics, McIntosh and Davis also represent different ideological wings of the party. McIntosh is viewed as more liberal while Davis, who voted against same-sex marriage, for example, is seen as more conservative.

The alliance between Jones and Davis formed just days after members of the Black Caucus received a strongly worded email from an influential group of black ministers calling on the caucus to unite behind one candidate to help elect the state’s first African American speaker.

“Our expectation is that you will act in the best interest of our community as a whole,” reads the letter from the African American Clergy for Action of Maryland. “You must put your personal ambitions and specific interests aside for the collective good of our community. Lastly, we expect, no we demand, that you act jointly to seize this opportunity to empower our community.”

The letter is signed by 24 black pastors with churches largely based in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

Davis, flanked by Jones and House Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), said he would seek consensus, respect the needs of the business community and treat the 42-member Republican caucus fairly.

The GOP’s role in the race has been controversial. Minority Leader Nic Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said his caucus will vote as a bloc for one of the Democrats, which could elevate a candidate who had a minority of Democratic support. Kipke said on Friday that the GOP had not selected a candidate.

Davis denied on Friday he was courting Republicans and tried to put to rest rumors that he had promised leadership positions to the GOP in exchange for its support.

“All they’ve asked me for is a seat at the table,” he said, adding Republicans asked for the same considerations Busch had provided.

He said his goal was to win over a majority of Democrats, but he would not commit to backing whomever won the Democratic caucus vote.

This week, the chairwoman of Maryland's Democratic Party, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, published an open letter to members of the House of Delegates widely perceived as threatening retribution if they teamed up with Republicans to win the speakership election.

Rockeymoore Cummings convened a conference call the following day to clarify that she was talking about supporting Republicans in general elections.

Branch, who is whipping votes on Davis’s behalf, said, “We are doing what we have to do to say, ‘This is our time,’ ” he said. “When is the time, if not now?”

Minutes after Davis and Jones announced their alliance, the only black Democrat elected to statewide office in Maryland offered his support.

“Black voters are the most loyal constituency of the Maryland Democratic Party, and the backing of the African American community has been critical to every Democratic victory across our state,” Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D), the former lieutenant governor, said in a statement.

“Even though African Americans continue to break barriers and make significant strides in public life, we have only managed to put cracks in the glass ceiling of our state’s political leadership,” he said. “This can and must change now.”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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