“I’m charged with being the statewide steward over the public’s tax dollars. I intend to make sure that everyone is given a fair opportunity to be successful and achieve their goals and dreams, and at the same token, ensuring that Marylanders are getting full value for their dollars.”
From student body president to State Treasurer, Dereck Davis, even from a young age, has always had an interest in politics and public service. Treasurer Davis graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, and a Master’s in Public Policy. During his time as an undergraduate, he was presented with a “life-altering opportunity” —an internship with the Prince George’s County Council. From there, Treasurer Davis turned that internship into a full-time job, working with his late boss, former Councilwoman JoAnn Bell who took him under her wing.
At the age of 27, Treasurer Davis became one of the youngest African Americans ever elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, representing District 25. Looking back, he shared that “In 1994, we had two vacancies in the 25th District. Even though I was only 27 at the time, you have to be ready because you never know when that opportunity is going to come.” Davis says. From there, he rose to become one of the most influential legislators, serving as the Chair of the House Economic Matters Committee for close to 20 years.
Treasurer Davis was elected and sworn in as Maryland State Treasurer on December 17, 2021, after serving in the House of Delegates for 27 years, replacing Nancy Kopp, who retired after nearly two decades as Treasurer and almost five decades in public service. Treasurer Davis is responsible for tens of billions of dollars in State funding, including the State’s financial and insurance services, the State’s capital debt and bond issuances, the State’s pension system, and the State’s college investment plans. In addition to those duties, one of the most unique aspects of his role as the State Treasurer is serving as a member of the Board of Public Works alongside the Governor and State Comptroller. “Because the Board of Public Works is only a three-person entity, you have to balance a lot of competing interests, as well as manage those two relationships. We have different backgrounds and experiences, so I enjoy the back and forth, and I’m hoping I’m adding something to the conversation. I know those gentlemen are definitely adding something to the conversation,” Treasurer Davis stated.
Treasurer Davis recently made time in his busy schedule to speak with me about how he has approached his new position, what major projects he’s been working on, and a few highlights from his long and successful legislative career.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about your background…where you’re from, and how you decided to get started in public service?
I was born in the District of Columbia, and my family stayed there until I was about two. For the last 53 years, I’ve been right here in Maryland, specifically in Prince George’s County, so I consider myself a life-long Marylander. I grew up in Prince George’s, went through the public school system, and graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park. Even from a young age, I’ve always had an interest in politics. I did the whole class President and student government thing, you know, that whole circuit. When I was a junior at the University of Maryland as a Political Science major, one of my advisors pointed me toward the Prince George’s County Council. I did an internship there, and what was supposed to be a three-month internship, turned out to be life-altering. That internship turned into a summer job, which led to a full-time job. My late boss, former Councilwoman JoAnn Bell, saw something in me. She started to take me around to all of the political events and introduce me.
In 1994, we had two vacancies in the 25th District. I was 27 at the time, but you have to be ready because you never know when that opportunity is going to come. It came for me at an early age, and as we’ve seen it play out, I stayed in the legislature for 27 years before being elected State Treasurer this past December. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity at a young age.
You have had a long, prestigious career in the Maryland General Assembly, including serving as the Chair of the Economic Matters Committee and as a powerful voice for Prince George’s County. What are some of your most significant memories from your time as a legislator including your proudest achievements?
After 27 years of public service, there are so many things that I can point to, including meeting former presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the first notable bill that I passed, which lowered the drunk driving threshold to .08. I was invited to the Rose Garden for a ceremony for that legislation, so that was very memorable. I was also proud to pass legislation recently to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21. We refer to that as “Tobacco 21.”.
Jumping back to 2006, I led the effort to increase Maryland’s minimum wage above the federal minimum wage, and that was the first time we had ever done that in Maryland. There are many more legislative initiatives that I certainly remember, but what I would sort of really point to, that stays with me, are the relationships I’ve developed with people that I may not have otherwise met, or really had anything in common with. I had the opportunity to work with and get to know people from other parts of the State including western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and the northernmost parts of Maryland. It made me have a better understanding of the people of Maryland and, I realized that, although Maryland is a small state, we are still a very diverse state. You have to think broader. What seems so right for me as a resident of Prince George’s County may not necessarily be the same for someone who lives in a different part of the state. So, working together to help meet each other’s needs and the fellowship are the things that I will remember most – not just those key legislative wins and near wins that I will of course take with me as well.
Now that you are several months into your new role as the State Treasurer, how does it compare to your time in the legislature, or how does your experience as a legislator inform your approach to being Treasurer?
That’s an excellent question and one that I would say I haven’t thought about because it’s sort of like a lived experience. Where my legislative background comes most into play is on the Board of Public Works [BPW]. It sort of has the feel of a legislative setting with all the debating back and forth. The preparation that it takes to be ready for BPW is very reminiscent of the preparation it took to be ready for when I was the Committee Chair of the Economic Matters Committee. And I still meet with folks! I thought I had maybe left a little bit of that behind me, but I haven’t. Advocates will still come in and we’ll meet and discuss things. So again, all of that is reminiscent of the legislature. I’m grateful that I have a great team of people that I was able to inherit from Treasurer Kopp, and some that I have added, to really ensure that we are watching over taxpayer dollars. It’s been very interesting, and it’s been a challenge, so hopefully, I’ve proven up to it.
You mentioned the Board of Public Works, which is a unique aspect of your role as the Treasurer. Can you give me insight into how you approached this responsibility, and how it aligns with your long-term goals for Maryland?
I really didn’t know what to expect on BPW. I have always seen it from afar, but I never really followed it that closely as a legislator, other than to see the end results and what actions the members took. Because it’s only a three-person entity, you have to balance a lot of things when there are a lot of competing interests. You have to manage your relationships with the Governor and the Comptroller because there are no other people that you can just go to, like in the legislature, where there are a lot of us and not everyone has to see eye-to-eye. That can’t really happen with the Board of Public Works.
One thing that is very important to me is the success of the Minority Business Enterprise Program which helps everyone get a fair opportunity to compete for government contracts. I work to balance the importance of equal access for everyone with being the statewide steward over the public’s dollars. I intend to make sure that everyone is given a fair opportunity to be successful and achieve their goals and dreams.
At BPW, sometimes hot button items will come up, where we’ll have differences of opinions and that’s okay. That’s why you have these bodies with members that have differing opinions. If we’re always agreeing, that usually means that only one person is doing the thinking. We have different backgrounds and experiences, so I enjoy the give and take, the back and forth. I’m hoping that I’m adding something to the conversation, and I know those gentlemen are definitely adding something to the conversation. If we are all contributing and thinking of the best way to handle a situation, we are ultimately bringing the best product to the people of Maryland.
Are there any sorts of projects or new developments that you are working on now that excites you?
I have been discussing with the Chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, Darryl Barnes, a partnership to push the Maryland 529 program – the State’s college savings and investment program. We hear so much these days about the crippling debt that our young people incur when trying to go to college. When they get out at 22 or 23 years old, they have this mountain of debt. What I want to push to all Marylanders, and particularly to families of color, is to start saving. We need to make sure that they are aware of the program so that they can start saving from the day those babies are born. Even if they can’t put out $100, $200, or whatever the case may be from every paycheck, we need to educate everyone that even $25, compounded for nearly 20 years, chips away at some of that debt. This program doesn’t have to be used just for a college: it can also be used for trade schools. We need to keep the focus on every opportunity to be successful. I’m excited about what the future holds to be able to help our young people and I’m certainly looking forward to working collaboratively with the legislature on this.
By: Valerie Skvirsky, Government Relations Associate