Anne Arundel women start historic legislative terms
You’d expect the most emotional moment of the week for Maryland General Assembly freshmen would be getting sworn in at the first legislative session.
For Del. Sandy Bartlett the chills came as she stood in the old House of Delegates chambers. Standing between displays of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the first African-American woman to represent Anne Arundel County in the House saw herself as part of history.
The Maryland City Democrat made sure to tell everyone she could: “That’s my room.”
But there’s not a lot of time to bask in the glory. As one of the newest members of the General Assembly, Bartlett only has 90 days of legislative session to start making good on the campaign promises that got her in the room.
“I have my ‘pinch me’ moments, thinking, ‘Am I really here?’ but then there’s no time to think. You just do,” she said. “You be where you have to be and you listen and learn.”
Bartlett isn’t alone. About a third of the lawmakers in this year’s session are freshmen, part of the largest group ever of women lawmakers to serve the State House. State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis, and Del. Heather Bagnall, D-Arnold, share that history-making weight as well.
Elfreth starts her session as the youngest woman to be a Maryland senator. After defeating Tony McConkey in November, Bagnall flipped a seat that had been Republican for 20 years.
While this is Elfreth’s first session as a senator, the Annapolis Democrat has been through 11 in the world of nonprofit lobbying and advocacy.
“I come in knowing just enough to know that I don’t know everything, but I’m used to the pace of it.”
She sits in her office sipping from a mug inked with the words “Happy 30th Sen. Elfreth,” a gift from a constituent, as she flips through hundreds of pages of proposed legislation.
Behind her, a portrait of Charles Carroll — an Annapolis landowner and lawyer who signed the Declaration of Independence — reminds her of her place in history. Forced to choose between the Maryland and U.S. Senate in 1792, Caroll chose to serve his state.
For freshmen lawmakers, setting up an office is just as much about symbolism as it is about functionality.
Elfreth’s grandfather’s bronze duck statue sits on her shelf, frozen in position to take flight next to the “baby senator” trophy she received at her swearing-in on Wednesday.
“My grandfather ... He didn’t believe women should have careers. He was a really decent person, a union electrician who worked really hard for the family but really didn’t believe that women could do much outside the home,” she said.
“He passed away last year and I was campaigning. I thought, ‘This was a guy who didn’t think I could do anything, and here I am.’ ”
This session, Elfreth wants to establish herself as a “bay senator.” She’ll be cosponsoring a new forest conservation act and renewable energy portfolio standards while sponsoring bills seeking greater penalties on stormwater runoff from development sites and strengthening the fisheries management process.
She’s also looking for a change to agro-tourism laws that would allow for barn weddings and events. Right now events held in barns are limited to 50 people.
With years of experience and months of preparation, she still worries about how the next 90 days will turn out.
“It’s like drinking out of a fire hose. Everything goes in 1,000 different directions when it comes to policy areas,” Elfreth said. “The hardest thing about this job so far is going to be telling people ‘no.’ There are legislators from across the state working on really great issues who are going to need a co-sponsor or a primary sponsor or a cross-file. I want to make sure the bills I’m sponsoring as primary, I can speak to them.”
High bar, lofty goals
Back in the House of Delegates, Bagnall has similar concerns about speaking to what she can do this session. She keeps most of the cards of her agenda close to her chest.
“I actually have a policy of never opening my mouth before I’m 85 percent certain of what I’m going to say,” the Arnold Democrat said.
As part of the Health and Government Operations Committee, she’s seeking solutions for the opioid crisis and on making health care more affordable and accessible. The biggest issue in the forefront will be tackling the price of prescription medications.
“We are pricing out quality affordable health care,” Bagnall said. “That’s going to be massive.”
She knows she has a big learning curve to overcome, but she isn’t worried. She’s eager to get to work.
“If I was afraid of education and research and hard work, I wouldn’t have run in the first place. Especially in a district that was so challenging,” she said. “I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the library. One of the challenges is going to be delegating that responsibility because I love it so much. I know with 3,000 bills a session I can’t solely do the research.”
Bagnall’s career up to this point has been in the arts and theater world, and her office is filled with artwork from friends, family and constituents. A painting behind her desk is the first piece of art she was able to afford to buy to support a friend. It’s a reminder of how far she’s come and how much work it takes to invest in her community.
“The challenge for me is going to make sure I do keep my workload realistic, though I will keep my goals lofty. Even if you fall short, you’ve still made so much ground just by setting the bar high.”
Just around the corner, Bartlett sits in her office surrounded by vases of brightly colored spring flowers. Like Elfreth’s mug, they’re also a recent birthday gift.
“(My staff ) already know, I like flowers and chocolate,” she laughed. “It changes my entire mood.”
Fighting for success this session is just as much physical as it is political. That starts with listening harder to succeed in the House, she said.
“Unfortunately, I have to strain my ears because I’m sitting in the back. But that’s OK,” she said.
She’ll need a new prescription for her glasses to keep up with all the legislation she plans to read. To keep her body and mind functioning at its highest level, she’s drinking lots of water and limiting her meat intake. She’s made a plan not to eat at every reception.
“Some will just be hello and water.” She’s got a bright, warm demeanor to match the pastel colors of her office, but Bartlett is ready to take on some heavy legislation. She’s got her sights on a bill that would change protective orders to include date rape. Protection after date rape is filed as a peace order under current legislation.
Gun bill issues are also high on her priority in light of recent mass shootings around the nation, including the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting in June.
“Let’s keep people alive,” Bartlett said. “That’s my goal.”
With the nation more divided than ever, she’s looking to make this session about eliminating what she calls “uni-culture.”
“There’s a lot of hate that is developing. I am very concerned about people losing their civility. As America, we are based upon an exchange of ideas and differences. I enjoyed that, I love that,” she said.
“Now … everyone has to look the same, act the same, be the same. That scares me. I will be looking for bills that even have any type of undertone leaning toward uni-culture. I can’t see myself supporting it.”
Del. Heather Bagnall, D-Arnold, laughs with Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley at the opening day of the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis on Wednesday. After defeating Tony McConkey in November, Bagnall flipped a seat that had been Republican for 20 years.
Del. Sandy Bartlett, D-Maryland City, is the first African-American woman to represent Anne Arundel in the House.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis, is the youngest woman to be a Maryland senator.