BY SUSIE CURRIE — A surprise announcement by one of Hyattsville’s representatives in Annapolis has stunned colleagues and constituents alike, and opened the door for a political appointment by Governor Martin O’Malley.
In a letter to his district on September 27, Maryland State Delegate Justin Ross (D-22) said that he would step down on November 9 “to spend more time with my lovely wife [and] my four beautiful children, and to concentrate on giving back to Prince George’s County as a private citizen and as a member of the business community.”
Ross was first elected in 2002, a 26-year-old newlywed “full of enthusiasm, energy and a burning desire to serve,” said Del. Anne Healey (D-22), a longtime Hyattsville resident who has represented the district since 1990.
Party leadership soon took notice. In 2007, House Speaker Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) tapped Ross to be chief deputy majority whip. Since then, said Busch, “he has been critical to the passage of every piece of important legislation in the House of Delegates.”
Two such pieces will be before voters the week he retires: Question 6, which would make same-sex marriage legal in Maryland, and Question 7, which would bring a casino to Prince George’s County and expand gaming in the state’s existing casinos.
Both bills passed by the thinnest of margins, with 60 percent of delegates voting in favor. As one of the whips, Ross was instrumental in rounding up those votes.
He is no stranger to long odds. In an interview, he recalled that one of his proudest moments in the House came in 2011. His colleagues voted to increase the state alcohol tax from 6 to 9 percent, generating revenue for programs that help the developmentally disabled.
“Everybody said it wouldn’t pass, but we got it done,” he said.
This year has been even busier for Maryland legislators. The regular session lasts 90 days, beginning in mid-January. But over the last year, three special sessions – on redistricting, the budget and gaming expansion – added nearly two weeks to the calendar. They also added logistical challenges to lawmakers trying to balance the work of the state with a full-time job or a young family.
Ross has both. Throughout his political career, he has continued working in commercial real-estate, first as a broker for the Lanham-based NAI Michael Companies and, since 2010, as vice president of the AFL-CIO Investment Trust Corporation.
But it was his four children, he says, who were the deciding factor in stepping down before his third term ends in 2014. They range in age from 18 months to 8 years.
“There are very few things more important to me than the 22nd District, but my family is one of them,” he said.
Alonzo Washington, chief of staff for County Councilmember Will Campos, said he considers Ross a mentor.
“We’re really going to miss working with him,” he added.
Washington is one of 24 members of the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee, the body responsible for, among other things, nominating a replacement to serve the remaining two years of Ross’ term.
Within 30 days of the seat being vacant, the committee must identify a replacement and forward the name to Governor Martin O’Malley, who will then appoint the successor.
The process can sometimes be divisive as politicians jockey for position. In 2008, after the sudden death of state senator Gwendolyn Britt (D-47), a vote of 12-11 put County Council Chair David Harrington in Britt’s seat.
As for whom Ross would like to see in his seat, “that’s for your next article,” he laughed.
For now, he’ll continue to coach his children’s sports teams and otherwise stay connected to the community. But he hasn’t ruled out a return to politics someday.
“I’m not closing any doors,” he said.