Adrienne Jones is the first woman and first African-American Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. In 2021, she introduced and passed an ambitious set of bills to address health and financial disparities in Black communities. This interview is part of a series for No Democracy Without Black Women, a report about the underrepresentation of Black women in state legislatures.
You have successfully reached the heights of leadership in the Maryland legislature. What propelled your trajectory to becoming Maryland Speaker of the House?
Throughout my career, I worked hard to take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to me – from my transition from the central committee to delegate and Speaker Pro-Tempore to Speaker of the House.
After graduating from UMBC, I was unsure about my career goals but knew I wanted to make a difference. I applied and was accepted into a federal government program that helped recent college graduates find their first job. Just six months after I graduated from college, I began working for Baltimore County government. My first position was a Clerk III serving as an Assistant to the Assistant Director of Central Service. A few years later, I joined the Baltimore County Executive’s Office as an aide where I discovered my love for public service.
While I continued to work for Baltimore County, I volunteered on several political campaigns, served on numerous community service boards and commissions, and was appointed as a Member Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee.
In 1997, following the death of one of the Delegates in the 10th district, I was encouraged by my Senator Delores Kelley and then County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger to apply for her vacant Delegate seat. But finally agreed to compete for the seat in a crowded field of 16 other candidates and I was appointed in October of 1997 by Speaker Casper Taylor. I subsequently ran for re-election in 1998, won and have won every reelection since then.
On November 20, 2002 at 8:30pm, I received a call from then Chairman Michael Busch that changed everything. He told me that he was going to run for the Speaker position and asked if I would run with him as his Speaker Pro Tem. I told him yes right away, and he and I were Speaker and Speaker Pro Tem for 16 years until his death in April of 2019.
Following Speaker Busch’s death, I was unanimously elected by the full House of Delegates to become Speaker of the House. My story serves as a lesson that you never know who is watching, and you never know when opportunities will become available to you.
What challenges did you face in your rise to leadership?
Initially, I was reluctant to compete for the delegate seat because I was caring for my sick mother, but finally agreed. After being a Delegate for a few years, I would ask myself, “Did I make a mistake?” There weren’t enough women or people of color serving with me. In this country there have been only two other Black women as Speakers in their states—current Congresswoman Karen Bass and New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver. I spent late nights in my office reading bills only to get on the House floor and hear some men talk loudly and say nothing in their floor remarks. It’s important that women – particularly women of color – have a voice in government. I’m reminded of the old expression “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
You introduced the Black Agenda this legislative session. Can you elaborate on the impact the policies will have on Black communities post COVID-19, especially how they will address the wealth gap?
Absolutely. The Black Agenda is a comprehensive approach to providing more economic opportunity and upward mobility for more Black Marylanders. It targets five key areas including health, housing, corporate management, business, and government. It will have a lasting impact, not just as we recover from COVID.
The most common large investment of any American family is a home, but redlining mortgage rates and banking investments since the New Deal have left Black families in Maryland without this valuable wealth creation tool. As a result, we passed a bill that creates tax-free savings accounts for all first-time homebuyers. We passed a bill preventing housing loan and credit applicants from being denied if they can provide alternate forms of creditworthiness, like a history of rent payments or utility payments. We also passed a bill requiring Maryland companies to report on the racial diversity of their boards to demonstrate diversity in their membership, leadership, or mission in order to qualify for state capital funding tax credit contracts over $1 million. Another part of the agenda is declaring racism a public health crisis and requiring health workers to undergo healthy equity and bias training.
I’m seeing a difference after this legislation was passed. I’m looking forward to doing more to ensure that no communities will be left out. Everyone should have the opportunity to build wealth in Maryland and across the country.