Maryland House Majority Leader Anne Kaiser rarely misses her weekly poker game in Annapolis. It’s a chance for her to chat with longtime friends, catch up on the gossip and unwind after long and often tense days during the three-month legislative session that begins each January. Kaiser is usually the only woman playing, but she hardly notices—she’s used to the boys club atmosphere that still permeates the state legislature, and she’s busy concentrating on her cards. Kaiser is steady and cautious when it comes to poker, colleagues say, not a big risk taker, at least not without adequate preparation. If she’s still in the hand after other players have folded, that’s a sure sign things are going her way. Bluffing is not her style.
“If she stays in, nine times out of 10 you are going to lose,” says Prince George’s County Del. Jay Walker, a regular in the weekly games, which cross county and occasionally party lines.
Poker night isn’t the only time Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat, plays her cards carefully and often wins.
The Rockville High School alum has managed to make her way into the leadership circle in Annapolis, a rarity among lawmakers who represent a county often viewed as too privileged and too liberal. The fact that Kaiser, a lesbian, is a leader in a Maryland State House long dominated by a well-entrenched cadre of mostly white men from rural communities makes her even more unique. Kaiser, who lives with her wife, Nancy Lineman, in Silver Spring’s Calverton neighborhood, helped shepherd same-sex marriage legislation in 2012 that led to a referendum legalizing the union later that year. “I became a Democrat because of civil rights,” Kaiser says. “Thirty years later, I was fighting for my own civil rights.”
Despite her ascension to power in the Maryland capital, Kaiser, 48, who was raised in a Republican household, is not a show horse. Many county residents probably don’t recognize her name. Yet the self-described “policy nerd” has been a steady presence in Annapolis for more than a decade—in 2014, she became the first woman from Montgomery County to be tapped as house majority leader—and she is considered one of the rising stars in the General Assembly.
When Kaiser was 5 years old, she read books about Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson over and over again.
“I was just fascinated from the beginning, without really knowing what politics meant,” she says. She thought that when someone ran for office, there was a footrace down the aisles of the U.S. Senate chamber, a place she had seen on television. Looking back, she says, she started becoming sensitive early on to the way boys might be treated differently from girls. Kaiser’s father and two older brothers were cleaning the roof of their Rockville house one day, and she wanted to climb up there, too. But her father said no, that she was too small. “You won’t let me up there because I am a girl,” Kaiser remembers telling him. He insisted it was because of her size, but at 7 years old, she kept pressing him.
In 1984, during her sophomore year in high school, Kaiser had what she calls the start of a “political awakening.” Her father, Jesse, was going to vote Republican in a local race, and her mother, Marian, was voting Democratic.
Because her parents’ votes were going to cancel each other out, they decided not to bother going to the polls. So Kaiser lectured them. “I gave them my rights and responsibilities speech, and compared it to Nazi Germany and why voting matters,” she says.
Kaiser’s parents ended up casting their ballots. Eventually, her father switched parties and became a Democrat so he could vote for his daughter when she ran for a spot on the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee in 1998, a move that helped launch her political career.
Kaiser, a Rockville High School alum, is the first woman from Montgomery County to be tapped as majority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates. Photo by Liz Lynch.
Eighteen years later, Kaiser is spending her days trying to improve public education in Maryland, corralling votes for Democratic priorities in the legislature and encouraging women to get into politics. The job of majority leader, to which she was appointed in late 2014 by House Speaker Michael Busch, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County, requires her to patiently line up support, make deals, and do whatever it takes to guarantee a majority for the legislative leadership’s issue du jour. In the past year, that has included figuring out ways to end-run Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on budget and education issues without seeming obstructionist.
It’s an unlikely position for a lawmaker who, by her own admission, is reserved and a bit socially awkward. “I am basically a shy person,” Kaiser says. She would rather give a speech in front of 500 people than mingle at a small gathering. “I am not comfortable with small talk.”
Still, since she was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2002, Kaiser has knocked on thousands of doors in an attempt to woo voters in District 14, which comprises parts of Silver Spring, Olney and Damascus. Along the way, she’s earned Busch’s trust and has become one of his key advisers, especially on education. After realizing that many students were arriving at community colleges in need of remedial math classes, Kaiser and former state delegate John L. Bohanan Jr. urged Busch, himself an expert on education, to push for a law requiring Maryland high school students to take four courses—one each year—that involved computation. “It was going to have an impact on curriculum throughout the state,” Kaiser recalls.
The law went into effect across Maryland in 2014, and is a rare example of the state dictating detailed standards to local school districts. “I take what she tells me as gospel,” Busch says.
In Annapolis, despite a style that she attributes to shyness but some say makes her come off as brusque, Kaiser has managed to win friends and influence colleagues, generally by studying hard. She first takes a broad look at an issue to figure out what needs to be done, who needs to be persuaded and how to fend off any opponents, she says. Kaiser works with her small staff to compile detailed, 3-inch-thick briefing books on whatever matter is before her. Few in the General Assembly are as well prepared, her colleagues say. Longtime friend and fellow poker player Justin Ross, a former delegate from Prince George’s County who is now a lobbyist, says legislators know it’s hard to dislodge Kaiser in a debate because she anticipates the questions. She doesn’t need to call on her staff to help. “She’s no pushover,” Ross says. It doesn’t hurt, he and others say, that Kaiser also has a wicked sense of humor, and can leaven serious moments with amusing comments.