Former Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson – who represented the Silver Spring area for more than 40 years in the Maryland House of Delegates and was among the first women to wield significant clout in that chamber – died Sunday in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. She was 89.
Appointed to fill a vacancy in Annapolis in 1976, Hixson retired from the General Assembly at the end of 2018 after opting not to seek re-election to an 11th full term. Her death was announced by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park) – who, as a state senator, shared representation of Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20 with Hixson for a decade.
“Sheila was a trailblazer in Maryland politics and government,” said the statement issued by Raskin and the four current legislators representing District 20: State Sen. Will Smith and Dels. Lorig Charkoudian, David Moon and Jheanelle Wilkins.
It was an allusion to her role as the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee – where she wielded the gavel for nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1993. She was the first woman to head that influential panel, and only the second woman in history to chair a standing committee of the House of Delegates.
In an interview at the time of Hixson’s retirement announcement in late 2017, Raskin characterized Hixson as a combination of outspoken progressive and hard-nosed pragmatist.
“She’s not one of those liberals who’s in politics to fight a valiant, losing battle and then sing Joan Baez songs when it’s all over,” Raskin said at the time. “When she believes in a cause, she wants to go out and win it — and do what is necessary to win.”
A favorite Hixson toast at after-hours gatherings that she frequently hosted in Annapolis was: “Here’s to those who wish us well. All the rest can go to hell.”
As chair of the House and Ways Committee, Hixson’s frequent focus was on funding for education. She also played a key role in passage of Maryland’s version of the earned income tax credit for low-income families, and was an original sponsor of the state law providing for advance health care directives—so-called living wills—to guide end-of-life decisions.
Her advocacy of gay rights legislation, which dated to the early 1990s, had an intensely personal aspect to it. After nearly a decade of lobbying on her part, gay rights legislation was signed into law in May 2001 by then-Gov. Parris Glendening, less than six months after the death of one of her sons, who was gay, from AIDS. (Hixson, who is survived by two daughters, in 2009 lost another son – a Marine Corps officer who served in the Iraq War – to suicide brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder.)
Born in L’Anse, Michigan, in 1933, Hixson moved to the Washington area in the mid-1960s to work for a Michigan member of Congress, the late U.S. Rep. William Ford, after her husband was named to head the D.C. office of the United Federation of Teachers.
The couple subsequently divorced, leaving Hixson to raise four children on her own.
“She was a single mom in the 1970s, which you didn’t see that much back then,” former Del. (and now-Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge) Kathleen Dumais, a long-time friend, noted at the time of Hixson’s retirement.
Hixson’s mother moved in to help, allowing Hixson to continue her career in politics – which included service as a staffer at the Democratic National Committee at the time of the 1972 Watergate break-in. She was a member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee when appointed by that body in late 1976 to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates created after her predecessor had resigned to become a district court judge.
At the time of Hixson’s arrival in Annapolis more than 45 years ago, there were about a dozen female members of the General Assembly – in stark contrast to today, when about one-third of the state Senate and almost half of the House of Delegates consist of female legislators.
Hixson was named vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee in late 1992, and six months later took over the panel when the prior chair, Anne Arundel Del. Tyras Athey, was appointed Maryland’s secretary of state.
A memorial service is planned by Hixson’s family and former colleagues for early next year in Annapolis, at a date to be announced.