When the gavel bangs to open the new Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis next January, Bolton Hill will have a new state senator, three other returning legislators and a brand new delegate representing the 40th Legislative District and District 44-A. All are Democrats and none has a general election opponent in November.
Melissa Wells, 34, is the only non-incumbent to win in a crowded Democratic state assembly primary. Although she won’t take the oath of office until the new year, she has begun building relationships with other delegates, particularly those in the city and Baltimore County, and is staking out committee assignments.
It was an exhausting campaign, with 13 candidates vying for three delegate slots in the 40th district, which includes most of Bolton Hill. Incumbent Del. Keith Haynes won easily in adjacent District 44-A. District 40 incumbent Frank Conaway, Jr. and appointed delegate Nick Mosby, the former city councilman, swept past all the other contestants. Delegate Antonio Hayes moved to the state senate, defeating incumbent senator Barbara Robinson.
Wells is new to politics but not to organizing, and she thinks what propelled her past other qualified candidates was her relentless outreach to voters. “I knocked on about 12,000 doors and engaged personally with everyone I could find. Every voter I spoke to, I asked what they cared about, the challenges facing their community, and I listened to their suggested solutions. Many were anxious to be heard.”
She said the race cost $65,000, mostly for mailings, which piled up alongside those from other candidates in the last month of the campaign. She went to every community meeting and event she heard about, and attended political forums. She received several union endorsements.
What caused her to jump into the race, when she already had a community-centered job overseeing apprenticeship programs for construction unions?
“I had been disappointed about how public money was being invested in development projects that went to out-of-state companies and how little was being insisted upon in terms of insuring that local people got meaningful jobs. The Port Covington negotiations are just one example,” she said. “I’m also outraged by how little is being done by the state government, how little the governor and others are doing to enforce laws against wage theft by contractors.”
It helped, she thinks, that she was a woman running in a year of enriched women’s activism. The two male assembly candidates who formed a slate with her finished out of the running.
Wells is upbeat and talkative. Raised in a working middle-class family in southern California and a graduate of the University of California, Riverside, she came east to attend American University in DC. She lives downtown in Charles Center.
“I’m very proud, inspired and encouraged by my family’s heritage and resilience,” said Wells. “My father is a grandson of slaves and the child of sharecroppers; he left Mississippi for California after serving in Vietnam. He was a Teamsters truck driver and eventually retired comfortably from FedEx in 2009.” Her mother was from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Of her, Wells said, “Much of her family owned land and were successful farmers and business owners, but went west to escape Jim Crow and the Tulsa race riots in the 1920s.”
In Annapolis, Wells hopes to land on the Environment and Transportation, Health and Government Operations, or Economic Matters committees. “I’m interested in advancing solar and wind energy,” she said. But, she continues, “we need to build those industries thoughtfully and not undermine the jobs and wages that are important to people already in the energy industry. We need to protect workers and consumers as we move toward sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.”
Wells said she hoped to be a bridge on environmental issues to find sensible solutions. Until the session begins and she gets an official website, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.