I’m often asked how I’m spending my free time since the Maryland state Senate adjourned early for the first time since the Civil War. The implication is that I must be twiddling my thumbs. The truth is that I’m busier than ever. Here’s a glimpse into this legislator’s life in the time of the coronavirus.
Connecting: One of my real joys about being an elected official is engaging with my communities and constituents. I learn about new issues and connect with neighborhoods and their leaders. Obviously, COVID-19 has all but eliminated my ability to easily interact. Instead of attending homeowner’s association meetings, teaching in classrooms or speaking to advocates, I live on Zoom or Google Hangout meetings.
Assisting: My terrific staff has helped roughly 200 District 17 residents navigate the fiasco that is Maryland’s unemployment insurance system. Faced with the imminent repossession of their car or potential eviction, constituents have frantically contacted me. The Department of Labor’s inadequately trained staff and new computer program that freezes and fails have left my Gaithersburg and Rockville constituents endlessly frustrated.
Protecting: There will be new fiscal realities as a result of the coronavirus. In the short term, governments are offering grants and loans. I publicize these opportunities through my website, blast emails and some personal phone calls. Next year, however, some budget items could be delayed, trimmed or eliminated. I was relieved to confirm that the vitally needed new Gaithersburg police station was not on any “cut” list.
Implementing: Often, after enacting a new law, our work is not yet done. My emergency telehealth bill (introduced with Del. Sandy Rosenberg [D-District 41]) was one of the few signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan (R). It allows Marylanders to connect with their health care providers from home via video or email without the risk of visiting a doctor or clinic. In order to have the same access, rural and lower-income students need a tweak to the guidelines produced by our state Department of Education. Unfortunately, the state superintendent has met our request with unexpected pushback. I will continue to push for this important change.
Advocating: Maryland became the first state in the nation to ban Styrofoam last year. We allowed an 18-month delay to deplete the backstock of products. It was quite disappointing that the governor used the fig leaf of the pandemic to push back implementation another three months. The environmental coalition has joined Del. Brooke Lierman (D-District 46) and me, opposing this unnecessary postponement of our landmark environmental law.
Monitoring: Because three people died in my district when 9-1-1 failed, I have dedicated the past six years to ensuring that Maryland is at the forefront of “Next Generation 9-1-1.” I chair the statewide commission that helped craft and endorse legislation I’ve sponsored. We continue to meet and discuss issues arising during the pandemic and from the upgrade to new technology.
Strengthening: Two committee hearings on Maryland’s elections revealed many problems with our new mail-in ballot procedures. There were careless human errors and an irresponsible lack of oversight of a vendor that caused many not to get a ballot at all or to have it arrive in the final days before Election Day. Our tough questioning — along with continued vigilance — should help ensure that the historic General Election this November goes more smoothly.
Sharing: In addition to my weekly blast emails, social media is an invaluable
way of reaching constituents, colleagues and advocates. I usually post on my
Senate Facebook page (@CherylCKagan) twice daily. I tweet regularly (@CherylKagan), and I choose a photo for Instagram (@CherylCKagan) reflecting that day’s issue or activity.
Developing: Finally — and most predictably — I am preparing my legislative agenda for January 2021. It takes countless hours to conduct online research; contact prospective allies and opponents; and learn about policies in other states. From bills related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement to consumer protection, election reform,
continued transparency and nonprofit advocacy, I expect another historic 90-day session next year.
After typing “90-day session,” I circled back to where this column started. Who knows what next January will bring? I fervently hope that my colleagues and I will be able to safely return to Annapolis. We rely on our staffers, reporters and advocates to get our job done in the best interest of the great state of Maryland. Regardless of our passion for the issues or commitment to making a difference, the pandemic will determine how (and whether) we are able to proceed. Until then, there will be no time for thumb-twiddling.
Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17) represents Rockville and Gaithersburg. She is a member of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac and has served on the regional board of the American Jewish Committee. for more than 20 years.