Two Black women have held the highest two leadership positions in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2019.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore) convened the 2021 legislative session in Annapolis amid the COVID-19 pandemic in two separate places. Jones presided over sessions at the rostrum in the House chamber and Sample-Hughes in a designated annex across the street in the House of Delegates office building.
“That was tough,” Sample-Hughes recalled in an interview Wednesday. “Some [delegates] said they couldn’t be heard over there…and their opinions wouldn’t be heard. I tried to reassure them, ‘yes you are, yes you are.’ It was different, but we made it.”
As second-in-command of the House Sample-Hughes, who has been in the legislature since 2015, received praise for her work from Jones and colleagues .
But a disagreement between the two House leaders ensued last week when Jones nominated Del. Dana Stein, a white man and fellow Democrat from Baltimore County, to become speaker pro tem when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Sample-Hughes called the decision “a huge disappointment,” coming from Jones “as someone who looks like me in a leadership role.”
The decision weighed on her even more last weekend in San Diego when she attended a legislative leaders symposium hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sample-Hughes said she saw no more than six Black legislators who hold leadership positions in state houses in attendance.
“It was [mostly] white males. It speaks to the proportions of how it is nationwide,” she said. “And then my speaker wants to lose this voice. I’m disappointed. I’m hurt. I’ve been loyal.”
Jones’ decision to change leadership positions wasn’t personal, but was part of a general post-election restructuring.
Stein was appointed to the House in June 2002 and served until January 2003, after running fourth in a race for one of three seats. He was elected three years later and has been in that chamber since 2007. He was the primary sponsor for eight pieces of legislation approved by the legislature this year.
Jones recently appointed Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) as House Majority Leader, the third most powerful position in the chamber. He’s known for his passionate defense of legislation during floor debates including those on criminal justice issues.
The shakeup also elevated two Black women to serve as vice chair of standing committees: Del. Regina T. Boyce (D-Baltimore City) on the Environment and Transportation Committee and Del. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) on Judiciary Committee. Another Black woman, Del. Melissa Wells (D-Baltimore City), was appointed as chief deputy majority whip.
The House already has two Black women who serve as chair and vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee: Dels. Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard) and Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery). House Health and Government Operations Chair Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D) identifies as Black and Latina.
“My job as Speaker is to put the strongest leadership team in place. Occasionally that means asking members of leadership to take on new roles and titles for the good of the body,” Jones said in a statement Thursday. “Del. Sample-Hughes made it clear she would not consider my request, so I went in a different direction.”
Sample-Hughes confirmed she was offered a senior leadership position but declined because “I knew I had done my job to the best of my abilities.”
Sample-Hughes is a member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and is the only African American and Democrat in the General Assembly from the Eastern Shore.
Asked about the Sample-Hughes ouster, Wilkins, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, said “no comment” in a text message Wednesday.
Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) said she was “shocked by the decision.”
“I’ve always thought very highly of the speaker pro tem’s leadership,” said Henson, who was appointed in 2019 and elected to a full term last year. “She’s done a great deal in support for me and in my role in being appointed and now being elected. I think very highly of her for what she brings to the table.”
But Henson said it was too early to say whether she’d vote for Sample-Hughes if there is a floor fight on the speaker pro tem position in January.
Meanwhile, Sample-Hughes said one reason for Jones’ decision to remove her as speaker pro tem stems from her voting record this year.
She said, in theory, House Bill 550 (Clean Transportation and Energy Act) is a good piece of legislation requested by the administration of Gov. Wes Moore (D). The governor signed the bill into law April 21.
However, she didn’t support it because she said more time is needed to build out infrastructure for electric vehicles on the Eastern Shore.
“We’re still struggling with broadband down here,” said Sample-Hughes, who had an excused absence in March when the House voted 100-35 to approve the bill.
In regards to the trans health bill, Sample-Hughes said late House Speaker Michael Busch would offer some leeway for legislators when it came to personal and religious beliefs.
“That’s changed and it’s disheartening,” she said.
Sample-Hughes said that whatever position she holds, she will continue “to connect my constituents with resources to empower them. It was always about that and always has been.”
This story has been updated to better reflect Del. Shaneka Henson’s position on a possible floor vote for speaker pro team.
This article was originally published on MarylandMatters.org and is republished with permission.