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Harris Jones & Malone: Spotlight on Senator Joan Carter Conway

Senator Joan Carter Conway, Chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee

One of the most essential skills to being an effective legislator is having the ability to advocate steadfastly on issues you believe are important. The most effective advocates are those who are both knowledgeable about the subject matter and passionate about the issues they are discussing. While it may seem simple in theory, oral advocacy is often a skill that must be developed over time through practice and trial and error. However, for Senator Joan Carter Conway (D-43 Baltimore City), she has carried this ability since joining the Maryland General Assembly in 1997 and long before she ever entered any political office. A well respected and impassioned speaker, Senator Conway has never written down any testimony on her legislation prior to presenting it in the Maryland General Assembly. This is not to say Senator Conway is ill-prepared when testifying. In contrast, Senator Conway is so well versed with her material that she can recite any pertinent information surrounding her legislation from her own memory. Because of Senator Conway’s knowledge of the law and her ability to advocate effectively, she has become one of the key voices in the General Assembly on social and education related issues. While speaking with Senator Conway, I had the opportunity to learn about her background, her career in the General Assembly, and legislation she hopes to pass in 2016.

Senator Joan Carter Conway was born in the Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore affectionately known as Sandtown. Shortly after her birth, Senator Conway moved with her parents to Virginia where she would attend Virginia public schools. From an early age, her parents recognized how passionate, strong-willed, and opinionated she was. Furthermore, Senator Conway’s father recognized that she loved to speak whenever given the opportunity. Despite spending a large part of her childhood in Virginia, Senator Conway’s parents always knew she would return to Baltimore one day. Her parents’ prediction proved correct and after returning to Baltimore, Senator Conway worked for the Urban Services Agency. According to Senator Conway, she was always expressly interested in the upward mobility and the quality of life of the constituents she worked with. During her twenty-four years with the Urban Services Agency, Senator Conway worked with Baltimore City communities to tackle poverty, improve educational opportunities, and to improve the socioeconomic conditions of citizens in urban environments. It was also during this time that Senator Conway began to lay the ground work for her tremendous constituent-based service she offers today.

Unlike many elected officials, Senator Conway never aspired to be a prominent legislator or to even hold a public office. However, given her natural ability to advocate, her respected standing in her community, and her youthful enthusiasm, Senator Conway was consistently approached to seek State or Local office. While being flattered by the suggestion that she could be an effective legislator, Senator Conway was unsure whether political office was the best place for her to serve her community. “I said oh no, I don’t ever want to be a politician. I’m not a politician. I’m a constituent-oriented person and I always will remain that”, says Conway. Notwithstanding her doubts, Senator Conway reluctantly ran for the House of Delegates in 1994. In the 94’ election, members of Senator Conway’s Democratic State Central Committee ticket were elected to serve but Senator Conway fell short by just over five hundred votes. Unbeknownst to Senator Conway, just a year later she would begin the process of becoming a stalwart in Baltimore City politics.

In 1995, Senator Conway was once again approached to seek elected office. This time, Senator Conway was approached about running for the Baltimore City Council.  Although reluctant, Senator Conway was assured that her ability to advocate would be best utilized if she were a member of public office. Speaking of her resistance to running, Senator Conway said,” I kept saying that’s just not who I am. But they said you advocate so well and its easier to change things from the inside then it is from the outer circle.” After pondering whether she would run, Senator Conway ran a six or seven-week campaign. This time Senator Conway would be victorious and she was elected to represent the 3rd district on the Baltimore City Council. In an election that would prove historic, Senator Conway became the first woman and the first African American to represent Baltimore City’s 3rd district. Despite winning her first position in public office, Senator Conway’s time in the City Council would be short lived.

In 1997, Senator John Pica decided to retire from his duties as Senator for the 43rd legislative district of Maryland. Due to her work in the community and in her position on the City Council, Senator Conway became the obvious choice to assume the position. After going through the Democratic State Central Committee, Senator Conway was unanimously elected to replace Senator Pica. Senator Conway once again made history becoming the first woman and the first African American to serve the 43rd legislative district in the State Senate. Since 1997, Senator Conway has been an outspoken fixture in the Maryland General Assembly and has never looked back. “I’m content where I am. Many individuals have asked me on several instances to run for mayor or other offices and I’ve told them I’m not interested,” says Conway. Today, Senator Conway is much more accepting of her role as a public servant and understands the systemic change she can promote as member of the Maryland General Assembly. “The process is very easy to comprehend,” says Senator Conway. In addition, Senator Conway determined in less than two weeks why certain bills would pass and others did not. She quickly caught on to the power of establishing sound relationships with other legislators and working with colleagues for the benefit of the State.

In her almost two decades in the legislature, Senator Conway’s ability to advocate and her legislative achievements rival that of any other legislator during that time period. Senator Conway’s accomplishments include championing for Historical Black Colleges and Universities throughout the State of Maryland. In doing so, Senator Conway has introduced legislation to establish equity in terms of funding for higher institutions of learning. In advocating for HBCU’s, Senator Conway has been a leader in the fight against the unnecessary duplication of academic programs at schools in the University of Maryland system. Senator Conway has also continued to contribute positively to Baltimore City communities. Thanks in large part to Senator Conway, in 2013, Baltimore City was able to secure $1.1 billion in construction funding for public schools. She hopes that the City will use these funds to drastically improve the infrastructure of its aging schools and to construct newer more modern schools throughout the City. Lastly, Senator Conway provided an influential vote on the legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. While Senator Conway has never been one to boast of her accomplishments, her hard work in the General Assembly has not gone unnoticed.

In 2003, Senator Conway was appointed as the Vice Chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Four years later in 2007, Senator Conway was appointed as the Chairwoman of that same committee. Today, she continues to serve as the Chair of the Committee.  Senator Conway stated that she never sought out to become the Chair of a committee nor did she seek out any leadership position in the General Assembly. “I was never really concerned about having a leadership position in the legislature. I had the support that my constituents gave me and I had my mouth that God gave me so I wasn’t concerned about it,” says Conway. In Senator Conway’s opinion, being the Chair of a committee means you have a say in what bills are assigned to and heard in your committee. In addition, the Chair gets to determine whether a bill ever comes up for a vote and if the bill ever makes it to the rest of the State Senate. Despite this tremendous amount of power, Senator Conway has not let it get the best of her or alter the political process. Regardless of the position she takes on pending legislation, Senator Conway gives every bill a hearing date. She also stated that 97% of the bills before her committee are added to the voting list.

In 2016, individuals once again approached Senator Conway seeking to take advantage of her earnest advocacy. However, unlike 1994 and 1995 where Senator Conway was approached to seek elected office, today, Senator Conway is often targeted to be the lead sponsor on various forms of legislation. “Everybody out there wants me to carry their bills,” says Senator Conway. She continues, “They say ‘You fight for your bills, you tell them what it is and how it is.’” Thus, it seems having Senator Conway sponsor your legislation is both an honor and a guarantee that the legislation will not die without a strong fight. In this current session, Senator Conway has introduced legislation altering who has standing to challenge a local legislatures’ adverse comprehensive zoning and land use actions in Circuit Court, legislation preventing Morgan State University from providing student housing at the Northwood Plaza shopping center unless gaining the approval of the Hillen Road Improvement Association, and legislation allowing individuals with multiple criminal charges stemming from one incident the opportunity to expunge charges that did not result in criminal convictions.  While this legislation may be somewhat contentious, Senator Conway was confident in her ability to explain the need for each of these bills. “When I testify on my bills I don’t come in with script, I tell you what the bill does, the effective date of the bill, why the bill is important. I just can’t read to people. I’ve never read to people since I’ve been here,” says Conway. No person, including Senator Conway, can predict with exact certainty the outcome of legislation that’s been introduced. However, there is absolutely no doubt that Senator Conway put forth a convincing argument as to why each of the aforementioned bills should be voted favorably in the General Assembly. Thus, it is quite clear that Senator Conway’s advocacy skills and her track record in the legislature only validates the high opinions of the many who sought for her to run for public office almost two decades ago.

By:  Kenneth N. Harris, Jr.


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