State Delegate Shaneka Henson ready to take care of business
By Victoria Bruce
Delegate Shaneka Henson has already hit the ground running as the 2021 session of Maryland’s General Assembly comes to order this month. However, the “ground” this time is much different than her first session in the House of Delegates representing District 30A, the seat where she succeeds the late Maryland Speaker Mike Busch. This year, the “ground” is her own tile floor, her committee “conference room” is the home office she shares with her husband (a middle school behavioral specialist), and her colleagues—scattered across Maryland—appear in little boxes on her laptop screen.
This new way of doing business hasn’t slowed Delegate Henson down at all. The successful lawyer with the Attorney General’s office has no fewer than 12 bills to introduce this legislative session ranging from making sure construction sites have hand-washing stations to registering buyers of ammunition. Henson, 37, says that while many veteran lawmakers have experience dealing with budget crises (which are sure to affect this year’s lawmaking), “no one has governed and legislated through a pandemic. So, all the changes in place to make sure we all stay safe and stay healthy is probably the first thing I look at when I’m figuring out how will I navigate my policy.”
Navigating the General Assembly was something that Henson learned how to do in May 2019 when she was chosen by the Democratic Central Committee to take over the seat left vacant by the death of Busch. The Speaker had been in office for 32 years—almost the entirety of Henson’s lifetime. She made history as the first Black woman to serve as delegate for District 30A.
On first arrival, Henson says she held back, making sure to be a team player and never upstaging her colleagues, even on topics of race and inequality, of which she had first-hand knowledge. Everything changed, she says, the day that George Floyd was murdered by a police officer kneeling on his neck. With what seemed to be the majority of her Annapolis constituents backing the Black Lives Matter movement and calling for an end to police brutality, Henson could no longer read from her notecards.
“I felt like, okay, if we are going to say this, then I want to make sure that there is authenticity here,” Henson says. “I’m not going to participate in this and give you my, ‘Delegate Henson.’ If I’m going to talk about this, I have to speak to you from the lived experience.”
Her lived experience began in a financially comfortable and very Christian household in Annapolis where her parents took her on weekends to help families living in government subsidized housing. Henson’s family delivered food, toys and prayers. She admits, “It was the last thing I wanted to do when I was a teenager,” Henson says. “I was like, mortified. I wanted to hang out at the mall or do something else.”
Fast forward to Henson, a 19-year-old college student returning to that same public housing development—this time, as a resident. Pregnant and about to become a single mother, Henson’s parents told her she had some adulting to do. What seemed like extreme tough love turned out to be a great life lesson, she says. Henson studied non-stop in college and raised her son. With the other residents, “we all relied on each other as a community,” Henson says. When volunteers came by to bring donations of clothes and food, Henson and her son were in line to receive the charity.
She pursued law school, something she’d dreamed of since she was a young child arguing for her rights on the playground and dreaming of following in the footsteps of Maryland-born Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “The reason that I love the law is that I didn’t personally want to feel like anybody could do anything to me at any time with there being no consequences. I always wanted to feel empowered. For me, being an attorney is taking that knowledge and helping other people feel and be empowered.”
She came home to her apartment with a Doctor of Law Degree wearing her cap and gown. Her neighbors cheered. They all had their own dreams, too. Some wanted to go into nursing, others to own their own businesses. But as Henson’s career took off, her friends were still in public housing. Many were worse off than they’d been years before.
That reality puts housing at the top of Henson’s priority list for Annapolis—a city where more than 40 percent of rental properties are subsidized housing. This session, Henson has four pieces of legislation she says will help ensure a safer quality of life for residents in those properties. A bill on indoor air quality will force landlords to have certified contractors remediate moldy homes. “Every day that I sat at home at the height of the pandemic, people were at homes that were filled with mold. It was heartbreaking to think that families were becoming sick from their own homes,” she says. “I would be super excited to get that bill passed, because as we’ve seen here locally, the challenge of mold as it occurs inside is tough to beat if you don’t have the resources to hire competent professionals.”
Several of Henson’s bills reflect some of the challenges caused by the pandemic. One bill mandates that nursing home facilities connect patients by phone with their loved ones if they can’t visit in person. Another calls for remote property inspections to be done by video chat, something that Henson plans on having experts from Ohio and Canada testify about to her committee. “Another bill says that when we go to exercise our right to vote, the law is protecting us from the person next to us bringing their firearm into the polling place,” Something Henson says is quite concerning after “what we’ve all witnessed across our television screens that happened to the U. S. Capitol.”
With solid legislative wins last year shepherding child support and housing bills into law, Henson is geared up and ready for more of the exhausting work of being a lawmaker. This time, however, instead of her power suit and signature heels, she’s in slipper socks and yoga pants, with a business look from the waist up. It’s what she calls “kind of a wardrobe mullet,” and a perfect 2021 style for Maryland’s virtual delegate from District 30A.