Josh Kurtz: Double D

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Even with the ice and snow, the smell of money wafted down the 302 feet of pavement that separates the Calvert House and Galway Bay in Annapolis on Friday.

The pre-session fundraising mania reached its surrealistic zenith, with six events scheduled between breakfast and high noon.

Fundraisers along this tiny piece of real estate were held for Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D); for Sen. Allan Kittleman (R), who is running for Howard County executive; for Sen. Jim Mathias (D); for newly-minted Sen. Steve Hershey (R); and for Del. Sally Jameson (D). Elsewhere in the state, at the same time, Sen. David Brinkley (R) and Del. Justin Ready (R) were raising money.

But the main event may have been the fundraiser, at Harry Browne’s, for House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D). There, special interests were able to pay tribute to a man who, like few others, has enormous sway over their legislative fortunes every year.

Quietly but steadily, Davis, an unassuming 46-year-old lifelong resident of Prince George’s County, has become a unique powerhouse in Annapolis, behind only the governor, the legislature’s presiding officers, and maybe nobody else. This year, he'll be in the middle of the legislature’s No. 1 battle, the proposal to hike the state minimum wage.

The portfolio of Economic Matters guarantees that its chairman will be a major player. With energy, utilities, banking, insurance, technology, economic development, labor relations, alcoholic beverages and professional licenses all part of the mix, Davis’ committee room is the center of the House action for myriad moneyed interests.

But it isn’t just the panel’s work product that has made Davis so important. It’s what he’s done with it, how he’s handled the annual agenda, that has added to his stature.

Davis is seen as an honest broker, someone whose door is always open and who will give a fair hearing to every side on any issue. That’s not something that can be said for every committee chairman in Annapolis. And presiding over Economic Matters, where eight-hour hearings are not unusual, he’s got the patience of Job.

Davis derives further power in Maryland politics from his day job as deputy director in the Prince George’s County government office of community relations, a position he’s well-suited for after stints working for the County Council, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and the state Labor Department. He’s a close confidant of County Executive Rushern Baker (D), who entered the House at the same time Davis did, in 1995.

Baker’s immediate predecessors, the mercurial Wayne Curry and the felon Jack Johnson, never had the easy relationships in the State House that Baker does. A lot of people in Annapolis have Baker’s back – but Davis is the most important, for a whole host of reasons.

Inevitably, the question about Davis is what comes next. Surely whenever House Speaker Mike Busch (D) decides to call it quits, Davis will be one of the very few people in the mix to succeed him.

Right now, the conventional wisdom is that House Environmental Matters Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D) is the frontrunner to be the next speaker. She comes from Baltimore – an asset at a time when the next governor will almost certainly be from the D.C. suburbs. As a legislative tactician, she has few equals, and she’s got more campaign savvy than just about anyone else in Annapolis. She’s helped scores of Democratic candidates through the years, and has spread her campaign cash around liberally. And there’s a historic aspect to her candidacy, as she’d be bidding to become the first woman, and the first openly gay, speaker in Maryland history.

But politics is situational, and McIntosh is just a few months younger than Busch, who turned 67 last week. McIntosh will be 71 as a new legislative term dawns in 2019 – and House members may conclude that they want a younger leader.

Davis will be a strong candidate for speaker whenever the time comes. The past two speakers, Busch and Casper Taylor, were Economic Matters chairmen before ascending to the top job. If Davis is able to unify the Legislative Black Caucus behind him, that’s a formidable base in any Democratic caucus election.

For all his power, Davis has never vacuumed up mind-boggling amounts of special interest cash, and he has not been a major donor to his Democratic colleagues. While both Davis and McIntosh have given generously to the campaign committee supporting the House Democratic Caucus slate, and Davis has boosted several candidates and entities in his home territory, according to a Center Maryland analysis, he has contributed to just nine House colleagues outside of Prince George’s County since 2007. McIntosh, by contrast, has contributed to 47 legislators outside of Baltimore city during that time.

But that imbalance may be changing. Sources say Davis’ outflow has picked up in recent months, with the knowledge that the freshman class of 2015 will be large – and will have a lot of say about the identity of the next speaker. While the rest of the world will be examining the campaign finance statements of the contenders for governor when they come out later this month, some insiders will be poring through other reports, to see how Davis’ contributions over the past year compare with McIntosh’s.

Despite the historic nature of any Davis bid to become speaker, his vote against gay marriage two years ago will hurt him in a leadership battle. Progressive groups will be watching closely this session to see how he handles the push to increase the state minimum wage. Davis has been a skeptic thus far. And if Anthony Brown is elected governor, that could stymie any Davis bid to become speaker, as they come from the same legislative district.

Sometime in the late 1990’s, a group of State House reporters sat around and tried to decide which legislators were “normal” human beings. We came up with three: Brian Frosh, John Slade, who later became a District Court judge in St. Mary’s County, and Dereck Davis.

Davis was a back-bencher then, but all this time later, and in his 12th year holding the Economic Matters gavel, he retains his regular-guy charm. He sees the whole political playing field, as the saying goes, but he’d just as soon talk about his family, or deflect attention away from himself (a trait Busch also possesses). Unlike so many of his colleagues, you rarely get the sense that he’s making political calculations.

But now, though Busch isn’t going anywhere yet, the time for political calculation is approaching for Dereck Davis. How he meets the moment will be one of the most fascinating subplots in Maryland politics.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.