“I am truly humbled and honored to be selected by President Ferguson to serve as Chair of the Senate’s new Committee on Education, Energy, and the Environment. I am excited by the membership makeup of this new Committee and that it will have jurisdiction over many of the most pressing issues facing our state and nation…I think the way we operate in Annapolis is going to be different this term, and I am excited to see how it all plays out.”
Conversations with HJM: Senator Brian Feldman
Senator Brian Feldman (D – Montgomery County – District 15) just stepped into his new leadership role as the Chairman of the Senate Education, Environment, and Energy Committee (EEE), formerly known as the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee (EHEA). Former Senator Paul Pinsky chaired EHEA and vacated the seat after Governor Wes Moore appointed him as the Director of the Maryland Energy Administration.
First elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2003, Feldman has played a significant role in the Maryland General Assembly (MGA). Feldman served in the House of Delegates for ten years and sat on the House Economic Matters Committee before being elected as a State Senator in 2013 and joining the Senate Finance Committee, where he most recently served as the Vice-Chair.
Ever since he was a child, Feldman has always had an interest in politics and the world of public service, describing himself as a “political junkie.” After graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting and later earning his Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Feldman moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a litigator for the United States Department of Justice, traveling around the country and trying complex cases for 13 years. After crisscrossing the country for over a decade, Feldman realized that it was time for him to make a career change. So, when a rare open seat presented itself in Montgomery County, Feldman dove headfirst into the world of politics and ran for office, ultimately becoming a proud and honorable member of the MGA.
Feldman wears many hats. Not only is he a State Senator, but he is also a practicing attorney and Certified Public Accountant (CPA) for a law firm in D.C. Feldman is also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the School of Public Health, where he teaches public policy courses in its master’s degree program. “I get to play lawyer, State Senator, and adjunct professor. I enjoy switching gears and having different parts of my brain being tapped,” Feldman says.
With the MGA back in session, Senator Feldman is excited and honored to move into his new leadership position and ready to take on the many pressing issues facing the State of Maryland that will be debated before his EEE committee. Feldman took the time to answer my questions on how he got to where he is today and how he sees the 2023 legislative session playing out this year with the new Moore-Miller administration.
I saw that you are originally from Pittsburg. What brought you to Maryland?
Yes! I went from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to Montgomery County. I grew up in the city of Pittsburg but then ended up going away to study at Pennsylvania State University, which then brought me back home, where I went to law school at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. After I graduated from law school, at the time, there were not many lawyer jobs and not a lot of economic vitality in Pittsburgh. I had an opportunity to move to Washington, D.C., so I took it, and I worked in the private sector for a few years before transitioning into the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) where I was a litigator for over a decade, until I ran for elective office. Since I was with the DOJ, because of the Hatch Act, I could not run for political office, so I had to make an adjustment.
What made you want to go into public service in the first place?
I have always loved politics. I was a political junkie from the time I was a little kid. And an opportunity presented itself quite candidly. At the time, an open seat was presented in the House of Delegates when one of the delegates decided to run for Congress. And as I said before, I was already thinking about making some changes, especially after a decade of traveling around the country. I was responsible for cases in California, Arizona, and Nevada, so for all that time, I was traveling back and forth from D.C. to the West Coast. And I had little kids, so over time, I felt like I needed to make some changes, and that coincided with the open seat. By that time, I was already living in Montgomery County and getting somewhat involved in the local political scene there. I decided to roll the dice and leave the DOJ so that I could run for political office and do other things in the lawyer world. Because open seats do not present themselves that often, I saw the opportunity and just took advantage of it! It’s very difficult to replace incumbents, and it’s hard to believe now, but my district, even though it’s in Montgomery County, it actually leaned Republican at the time. There were no incumbent Democrats running the year that I ran. The one gentleman who ran for Congress and the other legislators who were in the seats were all Republicans, so we have come a long way politically in my district since then. There was a recruiting effort to try and recruit some Democrats to reclaim some of the seats from the Republicans that election year, so I was also recruited by a few people who already were in elected office here in Montgomery County. So, it was a whole combination of things, but I just decided to take a shot, and I won! So, that got me to the House of Delegates and, of course, eventually to the Senate.
Are you still a practicing attorney?
Yes, I am. And something else I got into after I got elected is academia. For about 10 years, I taught a Public Policy course at Johns Hopkins University, which I loved doing. In fact, a couple of my former students are actually in elected office right now, including one who is a member of the Maryland General Assembly. So, I get to play lawyer, State Senator, and adjunct professor. I enjoy switching gears and having different parts of my brain being tapped. In 2017, Johns Hopkins wanted me to do something called a “Zoom class” because they wanted to do a virtual class where I could teach this course to students all over the world. And, of course, nobody at that time knew what Zoom was. I didn’t understand how it would work, and I enjoyed the in-person interaction with the students, so I declined. Then in 2019, the University of Maryland, College Park, asked me to teach a Public Policy course in their master’s degree program in their School of Public Health, and I agreed to do it. And what do you know–in 2020, I ended up having to do a Zoom class. So, I enjoy shifting gears at different parts and times of the year.
Maryland voters approved a referendum to legalize marijuana. Knowing that you were a floor leader for the legislation that would go into effect once voters did approve the referendum, moving forward, could you give me your insight on what you believe are the next steps for this? What can Marylanders expect?
For the last couple of years, I’ve sort of been the point guy on cannabis issues in the General Assembly. It actually goes back to 2018 when we were still dealing with the medical cannabis issue. I was the Chair of the conference committee that created new licenses for the medical program. And in the last couple of years, I’ve had bills dealing with actual straight-up legalization that didn’t involve a referendum, and those bills had come to the Finance committee. Now the issue is a little different here since we got the people of our State to weigh in. Over two-thirds of Marylanders voted “yes,” so there is an expectation, I think, that we are going to want to move quickly. We can’t drag this out for years. If you look back at the medical cannabis program, we passed that law in 2014. However, it wasn’t until the end of 2017 that there were actually any sales because you have to put in place all the regulatory framework, and licenses have to be issued, which all takes a while. So, the concern at this point, I think, is that there is an expectation for us. We had folks calling us on November 9th, the day after the referendum passed, wanting to know where they can get their adult-use cannabis. And a lot of us had to tell people, no, it doesn’t work that way. We have to actually go back and pass a law, putting meat on the bone–who gets the licenses, what are the tax rates going to be, what’s going to happen to the money that we collect, how many, and what kinds of licenses are we going to issue? Where will they be?
The one thing that we don’t have to deal with that we had to deal with in the last couple of years is worrying about a gubernatorial veto. There was a lot of discussion about that in the last couple of years with former Governor Hogan. Although he was very supportive of medical cannabis, he was silent when it came to his position on adult use legalization, so we really did not know for the last two years, that if we would have passed the bill, what would the Governor do? If he had vetoed it, could we have overridden the veto? That’s one of the reasons we ended up with a referendum ballot question, which is something that the Governor cannot veto–he is unable to veto constitutional amendment referendums, but he could have vetoed a straight-up bill. So now, I don’t think we have to worry about that as much with Governor Wes Moore. What we do need to think about is how many moving parts there are to this issue. We’re talking about a potentially $2 billion industry in Maryland. The medical program is already about $600 million, but most of the estimates are showing that the full-blown adult use legalization industry is going to be about $2 billion. It’s going to be a heavily lobbied bill, with a lot of money and issues involved to protect the interests of various stakeholders.
One of the issues we had with the medical program was social equity. A lot of the initial licenses were not going to a diverse population. That generated some lawsuits, which is why we ended up having to come up with a new piece of legislation in 2018. We want to avoid all that here. We want to get it right. We are looking at all the other 18 states to see how they’ve done it. Nobody has done it perfectly, though every one of those other states has run into problems, and so, we’re trying to draw from those experiences and come up with the best program in the country for Marylanders. It’s not a simple issue, and the people want us to move quickly. They don’t want a multi-year waiting period. So, the pressure is on–particularly with the 68% vote that we had in November.
With all the changes going on this year, how do you see the Senate playing out, especially with the new administration coming in, and of course, with your new leadership role as the Chairman of the rebranded Education, Energy, and Environment Committee?
I am truly humbled and honored to be selected by President Ferguson to serve as Chair of the Senate’s new Committee on Education, Energy, and the Environment. I am excited by the membership makeup of this new Committee and that it will have jurisdiction over many of the most pressing issues facing our state and nation. This year in particular, clean energy and climate are going to be dominating the General Assembly, especially with all the federal money that is coming from Congress on those subjects. I am really looking forward to working with everybody on those significant issues. Now, the elections produced two new democratic Senators–we’ve got Senator Dawn Giles in District 33 and Senator Mary Dulaney James in District 34, so that was a huge switch, especially for the Senate since our chamber is small.
Another notable change is that the legislature now has new power when it comes to the budget that it did not have before. Before, the Governor of Maryland had more budget authority than almost any other Governor in the country. Then we have Senate President Ferguson, who initially came in the middle of the last term, following former Senate President Miller. Now, this is really his Senate, and he has an opportunity to put his own imprint on the chamber. It’s a new term, a new Senate, new faces, and of course, a new administration, where we are not as preoccupied with questions like: “what will the Governor veto or not veto,” or “can we override the veto?” That was a dominant issue for us in the last few years, but it’s not going to be a big one moving forward. And with all of these changes in the House, the Senate, and the new Moore-Miller administration, I think the way we operate in Annapolis is going to be different this term, and I am excited to see how it all plays out.
By: Valerie Skvirsky, Government Relations Associate