Jones' ability, not her race, is garnering her praise

Balto. County delegate is Maryland's first black House speaker pro tem

January 20, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Del. Adrienne A. Jones is the first African-American woman to serve as the speaker pro tem of the Maryland House, but the flowers on her desk aren't from the NAACP or the Women's Caucus.

They're from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Neither she nor many other people in Annapolis make much of her race, but in a time when the Baltimore City delegation is shrinking and the Baltimore County delegation is losing seasoned leaders, many see the Randallstown Democrat's ascension to the House's No. 2 post as key to the power balance between Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

"The Baltimore region is hurting right now," said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Democrat who represents Jones' district. "We've got to bring some thought back to this area, which is still the economic engine of the state and is in kind of a moribund position. While she works quietly, she is a very effective and strong advocate for the region."

The official duty of the job is to preside over House sessions when the speaker is absent, but Jones said she is busy with the unofficial parts of the job.

Because she will be at the table for leadership meetings and will work closely with Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, on shaping and passing his agenda, she is being lobbied on issues outside of her district, being tapped for ad hoc committees and getting hit up for advice by new legislators.

"I was a Baltimore County delegate before, but now this increases my visibility," she said.

Jones, 48, has never been known as the kind of politician who seeks to increase her visibility -- she said she has always been interested in politics but never dreamed of running for office herself.

After earning a degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1976, she got a job as a clerk in Baltimore County's Office of Central Services. A few years later, she became an aide to then-County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson.

Since Hutchinson, Jones has worked for four Baltimore County executives -- she will keep the job under new County Executive James T. Smith Jr. -- focusing on minority affairs, community relations and equal employment opportunity compliance, but in the process gaining exposure to all facets of local government.

"I learned about taxes and permits and public works. I went out on site visits with the guys in highways," she said.

When one of the delegates in her home legislative district died in 1997, her experience in county government made her a natural fit to take over the open seat -- and the slot on the House Appropriations Committee that went with it, said U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who was county executive at the time.

To this day, Jones said, she feels uncomfortable promoting herself, which makes running for re-election difficult. When Busch, a friend from previous legislative sessions, was poised to become speaker after the defeat of his predecessor, Casper R. Taylor Jr., Jones didn't approach him about becoming his speaker pro tempore. Instead, he called her the night before Thanksgiving.

"It was like being proposed to," she said. "Of course, I answered right away."

Her colleagues say that lack of aggressive self-promotion is an important element in her new job. She will be a team player and has a solid reputation as a quiet, thoughtful consensus builder with few enemies, if any, making her ideal for her new job, they said.

"She is not a boisterous person, but because of her dominance on the issues, she is a good coalition builder, and I think that will be a good asset to Mike Busch to bring coalitions together -- the Women's Caucus, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Republican Caucus," said Martha S. Klima, a former Republican delegate from Lutherville who served with Jones for six years. "I respect her a lot."

Busch said Jones' ability to connect well with her peers has been critical for him.

"Early on, in some of the tense parts of my coming to office and trying to make some changes, she has been very helpful in talking to people and getting them to understand some of the reasoning behind some of the decisions I've made, which maybe were not as well received from me," Busch said.

Jones said her race and gender has gotten her attention -- people have asked her to meet their daughters or speak in front of their children's classes.

But her immediate impact, said Thomas M. Dewberry, a Catonsville Democrat who was speaker pro tempore before becoming Maryland's chief administrative law judge last year, will be to stick up for the interests of her county and region in tough budgetary times.

"In days like we have now, you have to make sure the cut to your county is no bigger than the one to other counties of like size," Dewberry said. "She'll be in the final decision-making room so that she can look out for the interests of Baltimore County, and Baltimore County will have a voice in the top echelon of the decision makers."

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