The president of the Maryland Senate was there. Check. The speaker of the House of Delegates was there. Check. The other 46 senators and the other 140 delegates – except for two lone wolves – were missing in action.
Such went the rump Special Session of the People’s General Assembly organized by the most progressive groups of the Democratic left – CASA de Maryland (Latinx), 1199 SEIU (unionized service workers), Progressive Maryland, Jews United for Justice, Our Revolution, Maryland Center for Economic Policy, and the Maryland Legislative Coalition.
They were already angry when more than a hundred came to an Annapolis park a mile west of the State House Wednesday evening to show that the legislature could meet while masked and social distancing. But the publicity stunt had little of the required elements needed to turn an idea into enacted law. There were votes using green voting cards, but no actual roll call votes and no real bills in front of them.
But the appearances of Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones elevated the publicity gimmick to a political event that turned hostile. The legislative leaders refused to do what the crowd vociferously demanded – call for a special session to pass new protections for renters, addicts, essential workers and to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s vetoes of spending for historically Black colleges and for new aid for public schools.
“The legislature has not stopped working,” insisted Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. They continued to hammer out legislation to meet the challenges of the pandemic and the economic downturn.
“We cannot afford to get it wrong,” Ferguson said. “We’re in a generational moment for the future of this country.”
“We were working our butts off,” said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “It’s easy to say, ‘Have a special session,’” but “we want to make sure to get it right.”
“When?” shouted several people. “MD cannot wait,” said a few hand-made signs.
A man from Prince George’s County said he was an essential worker who had to show up for work every day and he wondered “why the General Assembly cannot do the same thing.”
“If I gotta work, you gotta work too,” the man said.
“I listen to what you’re saying,” said Jones. “I know this is not necessarily what you wanted to hear.”
“Tell us what you’re working on,” demanded another member of the crowd. Others continued to ask when the legislature would be back in session.
A majority of the legislature can petition the governor to call them back into session, but they have not done so. Jones suggested they put pressure on Hogan to take some of the actions that they were asking for.
As Ferguson and Jones left with their staff and security detail, the chant went up from the crowd: “Special session now.”
Progressive Maryland’s Executive Director Larry Stafford, who acted as leader of the People’s General Assembly, commented, “I guess they thought it was going to be a walk in the park.”
“What we heard we’re excuses,” Stafford said.
The appearance of the Democratic leaders at the event was not part of the original script. “This was a total change in the program,” Stafford said. “We thought they were going to commit” to a special session.
He said his group has not been able to get a meeting with Ferguson and Jones despite repeated requests.
Two first-term delegates have been pressuring their colleagues to call a special session for months. They were the only other legislators to attend the People’s General Assembly.
“What we need is a special session now,” Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-Montgomery, told the assembly. “We cannot accept non-answers.”
Del. Julian Ivey, D-Prince George’s, told the crowd to “ask your elected officials to do what they were elected to do.”
“We’re giving you excuses why we can’t do our job,” Ivey said.
Stafford asked for volunteers to phone constituents of Ferguson and Jones to put pressure on them to call for a special session.