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Harris Jones & Malone: Spotlight on Delegate Dereck Davis

Delegate Dereck E. Davis, Chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee

While young people in their twenties are often faced with confusion about where their lives will take them, a select few find a calling at an earlier age. Of these select few, there are even less who choose to lead selfless lives well before their 30th birthdays. Delegate Dereck Davis (D- 25 Prince George’s County) is a prime example of someone whose twenties revolved around people other than himself, as he dedicated a large part of his twenties to engaging in government and public service. At the age of twenty-seven, Delegate Davis joined the Maryland General Assembly, making him one of the youngest legislators in the State. The 2016 session marks his twenty-first year in the legislature. Along the way, Delegate Davis has learned countless lessons and come into contact with numerous individuals who have influenced his character as a respected legislator in Maryland. I recently had a chance to sit down with Delegate Davis to discuss some of the early influences in his legislative career and his outlook as a veteran in the Maryland General Assembly.

Delegate Davis was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Capitol Heights, MD, a small municipality in Prince George’s County. He recalls being interested in politics from an early age when he observed his parents listening to a Ford-Carter presidential debate in the mid 1970s. Despite his youth, Delegate Davis’ parents explained to him the importance of politics in the daily lives of American citizens and the subject began to fascinate him. A product of the Prince George’s County public school system, Delegate Davis fostered his interest in politics by serving in student government. Even as a high school student, he recalls, “I wanted to be an advocate for people. I thought I had a gift of advocacy and I wanted to put it to good use.” Following his desire to work in government, Delegate Davis accepted an internship with the Prince George’s County Council as a junior at the University of Maryland College Park. Through hard work and dedication, Delegate Davis would rise to serve as the Chief of Staff for County Council Chairwoman JoAnn Bell. In 1994, when the Chairwoman was forced to vacate her seat due to term limits, Delegate Davis began to consider the possibility of running for office.

In 1994, two members of the House of Delegates in his district decided to run for the State Senate and with his six years of experience in the County Council, Delegate Davis decided to run for a spot in the State legislature. When describing the County Council and his decision to seek a seat in the General Assembly, Delegate Davis said, “I really wasn’t that interested in zoning, land use, and that’s a big part of it down there. The issues were different in the General Assembly.” In pursuit of a broader range of issues to work on in 1995, Delegate Davis ran for and was elected to serve the citizens of District 25 in the Maryland House of Delegates. Speaking of his decision to run for the House, Delegate Davis says, “I must say that was the best decision I ever made politically. This is what was meant for me and I’m glad I’m here”.

Delegate Davis served as a valued member of the House Environmental Matters Committee for the first eight years of his legislative career. During his early years in the General Assembly, Delegate Davis says his focus was on learning the process and trying to stay humble. “I didn’t come in trying to know everything or thinking that I was going to save the State of Maryland,” he said. Speaking of his goals, Delegate Davis reiterated, “I wanted to represent the people as the best I could and not embarrass myself or my family by doing anything dumb or stupid. It forced me to work hard and learn. There were and are really smart people down here.” Luckily for Delegate Davis, he had an amazing group of mentors he could lean on for knowledge. He credits former State Senator and Congressman Albert Wynn, current State Senator Ulysses Currie, former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry, and former Delegate and current Congressman Elijah Cummings with teaching him how to be an effective legislator in Annapolis. Speaking in reverence of the aforementioned legislators, he says, “Those guys were an inspiration, they were mentors, they were just really really influential to me in terms of public service and the job you can do from the inside and not just the outside.” After years of learning from his mentors, Delegate Davis would see how much of an impact they had on his ability to climb the ranks within the General Assembly.

In 2003, Speaker Michael Busch asked Delegate Davis to serve as the Chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. Overwhelmed with excitement, Delegate Davis accepted the position and became the fourth African-American to serve as the Chair of a House standing committee. Despite this tremendous accomplishment, Delegate Davis understands that he could not have reached this level through his efforts alone. He credits many African American legislators, particularly those mentioned above, with laying the ground work for him to serve today as Chairman. “I mean those guys paved the way. They did a lot. They integrated schools and other things. The opportunity I have now as a legislator and that I was given in 2003, blacks didn’t have the opportunity to become chairs of committees and so forth. I know it was through their efforts, their hard work, their leaning on the system and making it more accessible to all people not just some people.” It is clear that Delegate Davis carries with him a sense of responsibility to ensuring that the progress of these great legislators is not halted. “I’m currently the only black chair in the House and it’s incumbent upon me to make sure other people have that same opportunity that I had,” says Davis. For the last fourteen sessions, Delegate Davis has served as Chairman and has made it his goal to provide a good example to younger legislators who hope to accomplish as much as he has.

Although Delegate Davis had reliable mentors throughout his early years in the General Assembly, he also had a strong work ethic that has remained with him. From day one in the General Assembly, he worked on forming relationships with other members and understanding as many issues as possible. Even before becoming Chairman, Delegate Davis was committed to working towards improving the conditions of all citizens throughout the State of Maryland. Because of his time and effort, he has compiled various legislative achievements throughout his career. In 2001, Delegate Davis was the lead sponsor on legislation lowering the State’s drunk driving threshold from .10 blood alcohol concentration to .08. As a result of his efforts, Delegate Davis was invited to the White House and the legislation became a large part of the Clinton administration initiative to lower alcohol thresholds nationwide. In 2006, Delegate Davis introduced legislation raising the State’s minimum wage. According to Delegate Davis, this was the first time Maryland had ever raised the minimum wage above the Federal minimum wage. Lastly, Delegate Davis supported legislation repealing the death penalty in Maryland. He indicated that he was actually prepared to vote against repealing the death penalty. However, during the middle of the debate, Delegate Davis started listening to all the hostility and anger from individuals and realized he could not support the death penalty. “I started realizing that justice not only has to be blind, but it must be done with a calm spirit. It can’t come from anger”, says Delegate Davis. Unexpectedly, Delegate Davis changed his vote and delivered an unprepared floor speech on why the death penalty should be repealed. Impressed with his conviction and logic, Benjamin Jealous, the former President and CEO of the NAACP, wrote an op-ed referencing the floor speech. Delegate Davis is still honored by this recognition by the NAACP and hopes that his efforts encourage other legislators to follow their convictions when it comes to voting on legislation.

In the 2016 session of the General Assembly, Delegate Davis will once again follow his convictions and support legislation he believes is helpful to the citizens of Maryland. “I’ve been given the wonderful opportunity to serve. I don’t take it lightly; I don’t take it for granted”, says Davis. Delegate Davis’ priority legislation includes supporting paid sick leave, pay equity for women, and risk retirement for Senior citizens. Beyond his priority legislation, Delegate Davis will continue to serve as a mentor for newer legislators and a voice of reason in the legislature. Speaking of his duty, Delegate Davis says, “Now that I have the reigns a little bit, its my job to carry the ball a little further and make sure the people that come behind me have opportunities.” Now a grizzled veteran of over two decades, Delegate Davis is committed to ensuring that the legacy his mentors established well before he joined the General Assembly will continue on for years to come. Perhaps, one day, a young or future legislator will mention Delegate Davis’ name as one of the people who paved the way for them to reach their own success.

By:  Kenneth N. Harris, Jr.

 

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