What to Expect from the Maryland General Assembly’s 2021 Session: A Conversation with Sean Looney ’96 (LM)
Maryland lawmakers recently returned to Annapolis for the beginning of an unusual 90-day session. Unfortunately, but understandably, one of the unusual aspects of this year’s session is that we aren’t able to hold our annual Leadership Maryland Day in Annapolis. But we did visit with Sean Looney ’96 (LM), Vice President – Government Affairs at Comcast and Leadership Maryland board member, who has served as our facilitator for the Annapolis program since our first event in 2006. We spoke with him about why he feels an inside-look at our state’s legislative process is valuable to our members, and what we should know about the 2021 session.
Why did you help create Leadership Maryland Day in Annapolis back in 2006?
I thought it was critical for those who are interested in learning about what really goes on in Annapolis. Unless you work in Annapolis, it’s very hard to understand the byzantine world that exists there, especially during the 90-day session.
What is your goal for the Day in Annapolis program each year?
I always begin the day with the message that if you want to be engaged in public policy, you have to understand how it works – the nuts and bolts of it – and I emphasize the “if” because it is not for the faint of heart. I think a lot of people do a little bit of exploration into the world of public policy and say “wow, this is a full-contact sport, thank you very much, but I’m not going to do this.”
But for the leaders who are the core of Leadership Maryland, the message is if you are a leader and you really want to get engaged in public policy, you have to understand what happens for 90 days in Annapolis. And I stress that the most critically important time is really the nine months leading up to the session, when the legislators are back home. I tell Leadership Maryland members to find out who their elected officials are and make time to get in front of them and talk to them about the public policy issues they are passionate about. Make a justification to your legislator as to why they should favor, or perhaps compel to change their view, on a public policy issue, and then follow it, track it, and push it through the 90-day session.
I also hope Leadership Maryland attendees gain an appreciation for the dedication and hard work of legislators and staff for the 90-day session and beyond. The vast majority are there for all the right reasons and work tirelessly on behalf of their constituents.
What do you enjoy most about Leadership Maryland Day in Annapolis?
I love meeting the great leaders who have gone, or will go, through this program over the years. I am always struck by the diversity and the strength of our members. I also enjoy seeing people who are extremely accomplished in their respective field, but yet are very naïve about the way it really works in Annapolis. I love seeing that “ahah” moment when I explain something, or give a little bit of history on an issue, and I see the person’s eyes pop open and they say “wow, so that’s really the way it works?!” And I say “Yep! For better or worse, that’s the way it really works in Annapolis!” I enjoy educating people about the complexity of our legislative process.
How is the pandemic impacting the legislative process during this year’s session?
We had a shortened session last year, so that critical time period outside of the 90-day session that I spoke of was actually 10 months this year. I’m learning that the people who are most effective right now in Annapolis are those who took advantage of that time to reach out to their legislators and meet with them back home in their districts as much as they could. This year, if the legislation is not baked, it is going to have a really hard time getting through. So, all that legwork I encourage people to do in the months before session is more important now than ever. This year, if you don’t have your sponsor/champion lined up, don’t have the bill worked out exactly the way you want it to look, don’t have people on board, and don’t have leadership understanding the importance of it, you are going to have a really hard time getting legislation passed this year.
There were a record number of pre-filed bills this year because legislators knew it was going to be that much more challenging to get a bill through, so they got them in the system much earlier than normal.
How else are events of the past year impacting the 2021 session?
Since last March, two of the most significant things that have happened around the world, and especially in our country and state, are this terrible pandemic, and the realization that we have a lot of work to do on social justice. So, I think two major priorities of this year’s session that will result in comprehensive legislation will be recovering from and moving forward from the pandemic, and figuring out how to make progress on fixing some of the social justice issues that are vexing our society.
Another issue I deal with directly is broadband. The pandemic alone has shown us that broadband is more critical than ever before for education, continuity of business, and personal communications. Everyone now realizes what those of us in the industry have been saying for years – we need a better broadband plan. There are two issues with broadband – one is access, and the other is adoption. We have done a pretty good job on both in Maryland, especially because a lot of other states are lagging behind, but we need to do better. So, I have been working with several legislative leaders on how to develop a plan moving forward for broadband.
Is there anything else significant to note about this year’s session?
If we ever needed another reminder that leaders matter, the last few months have done that. What is significant for me is that for a long time the two major leaders in Annapolis were “Mike & Mike” – Mike Busch, who passed away a couple of years ago, and was an incredible leader with a very distinct style, and Mike Miller, who just passed away recently. It broke my heart a little, with Mike’s [Miller’s] love of history, that he wasn’t able to see the historic inauguration and all it represented. But now we have two new leaders in Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne Jones and they are putting their distinct impression on Annapolis, how it works under their leadership, emphasizing their priorities and demonstrating how legislation gets put through the system.
I think leaders matter. An okay leader may tell people what they want to hear, but a great leader will tell people what they need to hear. If anything, we’ve learned recently that you need the courage as a leader to tell people what they need to hear, whether they want to hear it or not. You are not always going to get a favorable reception when you tell people what they need to hear, but I think that’s one of the top requirements of a great leader. Whether it is regarding social justice, political conduct, or how to deal with a worldwide pandemic, we need leaders who are willing and able to have the courage to tell people what they need to hear.
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