Spouses and children abound on the opening day of the Maryland General Assembly’s annual session, so Shirley A. Gravely-Currie’s presence next to her husband, Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) was unremarkable.
But then Gravely-Currie returned the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Since the Jan. 10 start of the 90-day legislative session, Currie’s wife has sat an arm’s length away from her husband in a reserved seat, Senate floor credentials dangling from a lanyard around her neck.
Her presence has drawn attention not only to her husband’s diminishing health but also to the graying of the Maryland legislature and the delicate question in this statehouse and others of how long is too long to serve.
“Too many people don’t want to let go . . . They don’t want to pass the torch to the next generation,” said Belinda Queen-Howard, who represents Currie’s legislative district on the county’s Democratic Central Committee and was part of a group that objected to a plan last year to have Currie retire and allow his wife to complete his term.
As Americans live and work longer, it has become more common to see aging lawmakers on Capitol Hill or in statehouses across the country. Late last year, Congress delayed action on several key pieces of legislation to accommodate older, ailing senators.
Perhaps because of an unusually large crop of new lawmakers elected in 2014, Maryland is actually one of the youngest state legislatures in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The average age of a lawmaker in Annapolis is 57. But a half-dozen delegates and senators, including Currie, are octogenarians, and nearly 30, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) are in their 70s.
Currie, 80, is not the oldest member of the body (that distinction belongs to Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), who turns 85 this month), but he stands apart from his peers because he is the only lawmaker with a close family member who appears to be providing assistance with daily legislative duties. Currie votes on legislation, but he seldom participates in discussions.
The senator, who has said he will not seek reelection this year, declined a request for an interview.
Gravely-Currie, 67, described her husband as “fully engaged” in his legislative duties and said she is spending time with him in the statehouse this session as part of her research for a book she is writing on his life.
“If my husband were planning to run for reelection at his age, I would understand your story angle. However, he is not,” Gravely-Currie said in response to questions about Currie’s health. “His health is of no concern to your readers.”
There is no procedure for removing a legislator from office because of failing health.
Hixson, like Currie, is known to have a tendency to forget or repeat herself. She was removed last year from her position as chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee. And after some coaxing from friends, she announced in November that she does not plan to run for an 11th term.
During an interview last year, she talked about her career, which spans more than four decades.
“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,’ ” Hixson said, adding with a smile: “Not that I’ve been around too long.”
Currie, a 32-year lawmaker who was acquitted in a federal corruption case in 2011, announced in November 2016 that he planned to retire. He cited his declining health and said he could “no longer serve with the strength and energy you all deserve.”
Miller supported Currie’s plan to have his wife fill the seat and expected the county’s Democratic Central Committee to back it, as well. But most members of the committee resisted, saying other interested candidates, who weren’t handpicked by the party establishment, deserved a chance to compete for the seat.
In response to the standoff, Currie, considered the dean of African American lawmakers in the statehouse, rescinded his resignation.
Former delegate Melony G. Griffith, Del. Angela M. Angel (D-Prince George’s) and newcomer Jonathan E. Rosero have filed to run for his seat.
In the meantime, Gravely-Currie is attending meetings intended solely for lawmakers, including a recent breakfast with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and members of the Legislative Black Caucus. During Hogan’s State of the State speech in late January, she sat on the floor of the House chamber in a seat reserved for senators.
Gravely-Currie doesn’t vote and hasn’t participated in committee hearings or floor sessions. She occasionally reads papers that come across her husband’s desk, and following a recent Senate session, she walked around the chamber to gather signatures of co-sponsors for a bill to expand funding for Head Start that Currie is sponsoring.
She also acts as her husband’s chauffeur in Annapolis, although she said Currie still drives around the Prince George’s County neighborhood where they have lived for decades.
Asked about Currie’s physical and mental health, she said: “He’s physically in better shape than me . . . It’s hard keeping up with him sometimes.”
And his mental shape?
“What he says to me and others who ask is: ‘I’m not like I used to be,’ ” she said. “But who is?”
The senator’s colleagues are reluctant to talk publicly about why his wife has been by his side in the statehouse this year.
“It is what it is,” said one senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a colleague.
“Some days he’s sharp, others not so much,” said another senator, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity but recalled Currie showing up in the wrong committee room last year and apologizing for being late.
Miller, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Some supporters in Currie’s legislative district say the senator, who has served as a mentor for many young black lawmakers, should be able to finish his last term without scrutiny.
“You don’t mess with grandpa,” said one politically active constituent, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because the topic is sensitive.
But Queen-Howard disagreed, saying many of Currie’s constituents are aware of his failing health. She said Currie should have already stepped aside.
“A lot of people think passing the torch means to the young,” Queen-Howard said. “It could be someone who is just in the next generation, the next person waiting in line.”