Leading Democrats from Montgomery County and around Maryland gathered in Silver Spring Tuesday night to pay tribute to a woman who has been a political institution and to observe the end of an era.
At the close of the evening, Sheila Hixson made the announcement widely anticipated for months: that she would not seek an 11th full term in the state House of Delegates.
“Here tonight, I wanted to be with you, my friends and my family, and to let you know that I will not be running for office the next term,” said Hixson, 84, whose four decades in office have made her the second-longest serving member of the Maryland House.
“It’s been a great run and I couldn’t have done it without you,” Hixson added before an audience that included many fellow legislators from Montgomery County and elsewhere, as well as long-time constituents. “You made it the greatest moments of my life, and I want to thank you all very much.”
Her comments followed an hour-long gala in Hixson’s honor in which Martin O’Malley—describing himself as “the artist formerly known as the governor”—led off by serenading Hixson with choruses of “Danny Boy” and “This Land Is Your Land.”
Two of the state’s current top officeholders, House Speaker Michael Busch and Attorney General Brian Frosh, were there to toast Hixson, the second woman in history to chair a standing committee of the Maryland House.
County Executive Ike Leggett—who Hixson endorsed in 1986, when Leggett became the first African-American elected to the County Council—was the master of ceremonies.
Those who have been close to Hixson in Annapolis say she has been both an outspoken progressive—on issues ranging from gay rights to gun control—and a hard-nosed pragmatist.
“She has been on the cutting edge of social change at the same time she has been a masterful practitioner of electoral and legislative politics,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a former state senator who worked closely with Hixson while both represented Silver Spring/Takoma Park-based District 20.
In a recent interview, Raskin, who was among the speakers at Tuesday night’s event, added of Hixson: “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. When she believes in a cause, she wants to go out and win it—and do what is necessary to win.”
As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1993 until earlier this year, much of Hixson’s legislative legacy centers on funding of education, over which the panel has significant jurisdiction.
“She was a constant defender of the whole education system in Maryland—particularly with regard to Montgomery County—when it came to school funding,” said former House Majority Leader John Hurson, a Chevy Chase resident who served with Hixson for nearly 15 years.
Hixson’s influence has spanned a wide range of policy areas. She was a major force behind the state’s version of the earned income tax credit for low-income families. And she is said to be particularly proud of her role as an original sponsor of the state law allowing for advance health care directives—so-called living wills—to guide end-of-life decisions.
Several legislators to whom she has been close pointed to her early role in pushing for gay rights legislation.
“She put in the bill starting in the early 1990s,” Hurson recalled in an interview. “She was a pioneer. She was way ahead of her time in recognizing that as a major issue in advancing civil rights.”
That initiative had a personal aspect for Hixson as well: After nearly a decade of effort on her part, gay rights legislation passed and was signed into law by Gov. Parris Glendening in May 2001. It was less than six months after the death of her son, Richard, a gay man, from AIDS at age 40.
“I am emotionally involved. … I just want to thank my colleagues,” a weeping Hixson declared as the legislation cleared the House of Delegates that year.
It would not be only time that Hixson would suffer the loss of a child. In 2009, her son, Todd—who as a colonel in the Marine Corps had multiple assignments to the Middle East during the Iraq War—committed suicide at 50, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Money raised in conjunction with Tuesday night’s gala went to the Warrior Canine Connection, an organization that trains and provides service dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD.
Those who know her say that Hixson—whose two daughters were in the audience Tuesday—has not allowed personal tragedy to affect her political outlook.
“She has seen the hardest times anybody can imagine, but it has never turned her into an embittered person. She has never lost the twinkle in her eye,” Raskin said in an interview. “She has a well-earned reputation as a bon vivant.”
Tuesday evening, Raskin led the crowd in reciting Hixson’s favorite toast: “Here’s to those who wish us well. All the rest can go to hell.”
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, left, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, right, were part of a celebration gala on Tuesday for Del. Sheila Hixson. Credit: Edward Kimmel
Born in Michigan, Hixson came to Washington in the mid-1960s to work for then-U.S. Rep. William Ford when her husband, an organizer for the United Federation of Teachers, was named to head the union’s D.C. office. But 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,” Del. Kathleen Dumais of Rockville, who has known Hixson for more than a quarter of a century, noted.
Hixson’s mother moved in with the family to help, allowing Hixson to continue her career—which included lobbying Congress on behalf of the American Dental Association, as well as a stint at the Democratic National Committee at the time of the 1972 Watergate break-in.
She also became involved in Montgomery County politics, and was a member of the county’s Democratic committee when she was appointed in late 1976 to replace Del. Martin Becker, who chaired two House committees before resigning to become a district court judge.
Current Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp of Bethesda had been elected to the House of Delegates just two years prior to Hixson’s arrival. They were then among only a dozen women serving in the General Assembly, as compared to 60 today.
“I remember the first day she came to the House,” Kopp said in an interview. “She was replacing a leading legislator. We knew she had a political background and that she had been active in the Democratic Party, but we really didn’t know that much more about her. We sat back and watched, and I think we were all very impressed by her astuteness, but also her personal compassion.”
Kopp added of Hixson: “During her entire period of service, I think she has really been distinguished by her degree of personal commitment and compassion.”
Both Hixson and Kopp—who spent 27 years in the House of Delegates before being named state treasurer—rank among the most influential state legislators to come out of Montgomery County during the past half-century. But they had a temporary parting of the ways in an episode that ultimately led to Hixson being named to chair the powerful Ways and Means panel.
Kopp, who was speaker pro tem at the time, in late 1992 led a coup against then-Speaker Clayton Mitchell. Much of Kopp’s support came from fellow Montgomery County legislators, who bristled at Mitchell’s authoritarian style and his treatment of Montgomery on some legislative matters.
Hixson, however, opted not to join insurrection. After it was quashed, Mitchell removed one of the rebels—then-Del. Gene Counihan of Montgomery Village—as vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and replaced him with Hixson.
Six months later, in June 1993, Hixson was named to chair the panel when her predecessor, Anne Arundel Del. Tyras Athey, resigned to become Maryland secretary of state. Only one other woman, the late Del. Helen Koss of Silver Spring, had previously chaired a House committee—the now-defunct Constitutional and Administrative Law panel—starting in 1979.
The episode underscored what friends see as a major element of Hixson’s political persona.
“On a personal level, I think one of the things that hasn’t been emphasized about Sheila is her loyalty. That meant everything to her—being loyal to the speaker, being loyal to the Democratic team, being loyal to your friends,” said Hurson, adding: “It’s not something that’s glamorized any more in politics. To her, it is central to what makes her up and what made her such a valuable political partner.”
A large crowd celebrated Del. Sheila Hixson in Silver Spring on Tuesday. Credit: Edward Kimmel
Notwithstanding the sunny disposition and personal compassion for which she was known, Hixson developed a no-nonsense reputation at the Ways and Means panel.
“She always ran the committee with an iron hand,” Dumais said in an interview. “She controlled the committee—which, as a woman, I don’t think is what people necessarily expected.”
Added Dumais: “We have talked sometimes about how did she fare in a world that was dominated by men. And Sheila said, ‘Look, I decided that if I was going to be involved, that meant I needed to be with them when they were behind closed doors or out having drinks and dinner. That was just important — that I needed to make sure that I could beat them on their turf.’
“And, as a result, she became very trusted and respected by leadership.”
There was speculation in 2014 that Hixson, then 81, might retire. But she sought re-election, knocked on doors around District 20, and finished first in a nine-way primary for three seats.
But, during her current term, it became apparent her legislative career was heading to a close.
At the beginning of this year, Busch—a longtime friend and ally whom Hixson asked to join her on stage Tuesday in announcing her retirement—eased her out as Ways and Means chairman. She was replaced by Del. Anne Kaiser of Silver Spring who, at age 48 at the time, is nearly 35 years younger than Hixson. Hixson was named chairman emeritus, and kept her office behind the Ways and Means hearing room.
Meanwhile, with District 20 Dels. David Moon and Jheanelle Wilkins poised to seek re-election, three non-incumbents already had joined the 2018 Democratic primary race, eyeing the prospect of a seat opened up by Hixson’s expected retirement.
In addition to her legislative accomplishments, Hixson leaves a legacy as a mentor to many of those now serving in Annapolis.
“All of us new whippersnapper delegates—particularly from Montgomery County—were ordered to go and get schooled by Sheila Hixson,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a District 20 colleague of Hixson’s for two decades, recalled in a videotaped tribute shown Tuesday evening. “She has mentored dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of legislators and legislative assistants, and she has left a mark on Annapolis that is irreplaceable.”