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A quiet speaker: Adrienne Jones seeking strengths in others as she adjusts to role leading Maryland

By Pamela Wood and Luke Broadwater The Baltimore Sun May 16, 2019

In the Maryland House of Delegates chamber in Annapolis, portraits of 11 past speakers hang on the walls. Most of them grasp the speaker’s wooden gavel. A few hold law books.

All of them are white men.

Now an African American woman from Baltimore County has joined the ranks of those presiding over the General Assembly’s lower chamber. Adrienne Jones, a Democrat from Woodstock, was the surprise pick to become the 107th speaker of the House.

Jones has been celebrated for breaking barriers since her selection this month, while also being praised for the quiet, but firm, leadership that landed her the role.

In an interview in her delegate office — she hadn’t yet moved to the speaker’s suite — Jones said she’s moving deliberately, taking time to hear from delegates as she plans for the next General Assembly session in January.

“It’s like a broad listening tour,” Jones said.

Jones plans to learn about delegates’ concerns and ideas. And she’ll stop by fundraisers for delegates, particularly the freshmen going back to their constituents for the first time since they were elected last year.

“They may have a bill idea, or they may say: ‘I would like to do XYZ,’ ” Jones said.

Jones hasn’t charted her priorities as speaker or decided whether to change leadership positions and committee assignments. She hasn’t suggested who should become speaker pro tem — the position she held previously.

Those who know Jones expect her to be a steady hand in leading the House. They describe her as a hard worker and quiet leader who should not be underestimated.

Jones has never been a showboater or a headline-grabber. But Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam said legislators have learned not to let Jones’ introversion fool them into thinking she’s weak.

“She doesn’t really beat around the bush. If she sees something is not going right, she lets the person know,” said Nathan-Pulliam, a Democrat who represents a neighboring district. “If she’s expecting you to perform and you’re not, she’s going to come right up to you and correct you. I’ve seen her do it so many times.”

“She’s not the person who slaps you on the back,” said U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who was among those who pushed Jones to try for public office in the late 1990s, when he was the Democratic Baltimore County executive. “She is reserved, but she cares about what she’s doing and people respect that. She’s a great listener.”

Jones has been a state delegate since 1997 and was second-in-command to the late Speaker Michael Busch from 2003 until this year, when Busch died April 7. But before the race for speaker, Jones was not well-known outside her western Baltimore County district and the State House.

Now, she holds one of the most powerful political positions in Maryland. She has the opportunity to steer the priorities of the legislature. And she can collaborate with — or go toe-to-toe with — Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

So far, Jones has been warmly embraced.

When Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young of Baltimore held a ceremonial swearing-in last week, the crowd gave two standing ovations: one for Young and one for Jones. As the ceremony ended, supporters and well-wishers mobbed Jones, hugging her and asking to take photos with her.

That Jones was so broadly and publicly celebrated by hundreds in Baltimore despite few having known her name just weeks before speaks to her sudden transformation.

“It was like a whirlwind,” Jones said.

Jones, 64, was born in the historically African American community of Cowdensville in Arbutus, the second of five children. All the others were boys.

“We helped toughen her up to deal with politics,” said Jones’ older brother, Barry Williams. “She’s pretty comfortable going into a room with all guys and mixing it up and dealing with them.”

The children went to public schools that were legally desegregated, but not fully integrated, Williams said. Often, he and his sister were the only African American children in their classes. During square-dancing lessons, they were required to dance with the gym teachers instead of their white classmates, he said.

Jones graduated from Lansdowne High School. Her parents instilled the importance of education, and all of the children went to college.

“She was studious and she was very focused on the things she was doing, as she is today,” said Williams, who is Baltimore County’s director of parks and recreation.

Williams, too, said those who underestimate Jones because of her demeanor “are in for a rude awakening.”

“She can be pretty strong and clear if things are not going correctly,” he said. “She can hold her own.”

Jones earned a degree in 1976 in psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — “It comes in handy,” she joked — and landed a job with the Baltimore County government through a job-training program.

In the county, Jones rose to positions such as director of fair practices and deputy director of human resources, before retiring in 2014.

Jones co-founded the Baltimore County African American Cultural Festival, held each September in Towson.

Jones had been on the Democratic Party’s central committee for Baltimore County and volunteered for campaigns for years when Del. Joan N. Parker died in 1997, and someone was needed to fill the seat.

Jones said she was reluctant to apply because she was taking care of her mother, who was very sick. Some big names pressured her to go for it: Nathan-Pulliam, a state senator; Ruppersberger, her boss and the county executive; state Sen. Delores Kelley; and then-Del. Emmett Burns, among others.

“I worked on everyone else’s campaigns and I just said, ‘OK, I’ll go and apply,’ ” Jones said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get it. I love public service. It sounds corny, but I do.”

Jones beat 16 other applicants to be named to the seat. She ran for her own term in 1998 and has been winning ever since.

In 2003, when Busch became speaker of the House, he asked Jones to be his speaker pro tem. That put Jones in Busch’s Democratic leadership team and gave her the duty of leading House sessions in Busch’s absence.

This past session, when Busch was increasingly absent due to health problems, Jones guided the 141-member House.

“I think some people were a little surprised at how in command and in control she was,” said Jim Smith, a former Democratic Baltimore County executive and judge who has known Jones since the 1970s.

After Busch died, Jones was one of three people who sought the position of speaker, along with Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore and Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George’s County.

As a special May 1 legislative session to choose a speaker approached, Jones realized she didn’t have the votes and withdrew. She supported Davis in hopes of electing the first African American speaker.

But when Democrats met before the vote, they were bitterly divided between McIntosh and Davis. A closed-door caucus meeting stretched for hours.

Both had strong support, but neither had enough votes to win with Democratic votes alone. Republicans had pledged their support for Davis, but some Democrats cautioned against electing a speaker by relying on GOP votes.

Separately, McIntosh and Davis asked Jones whether she would consider going for the job. When the deal was sealed, and Jones won unanimous support among the Democrats, sustained applause and cheers rang out.

Delegates rushed to the State House, where they made it official. On a unanimous vote — including Republicans — Jones was the first person elected speaker who was not a white man.

“Wow,” she told her colleagues. “I didn’t think I would be here when I left out my house this morning.”

Jones thinks the result would have pleased her mentor, because it reflected sacrifice and the unity of the Democratic Party.

“That was something Mike Busch would want to see,” Jones said. “He would want to see the unity within the caucus.”

Don Hutchinson, another former Democratic Baltimore County executive, said he was surprised, but not shocked, that Jones emerged as the consensus candidate. He hired Jones in his legislative office in 1979, and found her to be a problem-solver.

“In politics, it’s sometimes good to be the second choice of everybody, including the Republicans,” said Hutchinson, who is president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Hutchinson said Marylanders should expect a different style of leadership than that of Busch, a gregarious politician and keen legislative tactician.

“Adrienne will be, in her first few years, an under-the-radar leader,” he said. “She’s not going to be a person that’s going to create the kind of drama that Mike Busch was able to create.”

Jones will be tasked with managing the interests of the sometimes unwieldy 141-member chamber. She’s likely to draw on her 16 years of experience as chairwoman of a budget subcommittee that reviews the state’s construction budget. Each year, nearly every delegate would appear before Jones and the subcommittee to make their pleas for projects in their districts.

Del. Tawanna P. Gaines, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said she’s watched for years as Jones masterfully handled the subcommittee. Jones is known to sit quietly — often stoically — as lawmakers and advocates plead for funding. Then Jones will ask a series of questions that bring into focus exactly how much is needed. Those requesting taxpayer dollars in excess of what’s essential are quickly cut down, Gaines said.

“She’s soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but she’s thinking and plotting the whole time,” Gaines said. “She calmly steers you in a certain direction. You don’t even know you’ve been played until after the fact.”

In the weeks that have followed her election, Jones said she’s been besieged by requests for meetings. Tables in her office are crowded with congratulatory floral arrangements.

As Jones finished an interview with The Baltimore Sun on a recent morning, a Democratic delegate was waiting, hoping to get five minutes with the new speaker. But he had to be put off: A group from the University of Maryland Medical System was on its way in for a meeting. Then Jones had to prepare for her speech at the mayor’s ceremony.

Jones said she will be channeling Busch as she prepares for her first legislative session as speaker.

“He taught me to be a good listener, and to be a good listener because sometimes you find out the strength an individual may have that they may not have shown themselves,” Jones said. “Because perhaps they never said anything on the floor. Or they don’t speak often in their committees, or may not even have sponsored a bill. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any value. Because everyone has something that they have a strength in, and it’s about finding that.”

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