All 47 senators were present during the debate on same-sex marriage in the Senate Thursday night, but when the vote was called, one senator — Sen. Joanne Benson — was not in the chamber to cast her vote against it.
At Friday morning’s legislative session, Benson attempted to rectify that.
She explained what had happened to the full Senate. The Prince George’s County Democrat had been invited to be the keynote speaker at Crossland High School’s Black History Month celebration. Benson confirmed the speaking engagement months ago, long before the same-sex marriage bill was being considered by the full Senate.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, a cloture motion passed, limiting debate to one hour. Benson figured that she had the time to go to her car and get the school’s phone number so she could let them know she was running late.
As it happened, debate only lasted about another 20 minutes. The roll was called while Benson was still at her car. She returned to an empty chamber.
“Had I known it would be that quick, I would never have left,” Benson said.
Senate President Mike Miller said that Benson had told him about her speaking engagement on Thursday, and he knew she really wanted to have a vote recorded. He also understood her reasoning for leaving the chamber, and expectation of more debate time. He asked senators if they would support allowing Benson’s vote to be recorded.
Sen. David Brinkley, a Carroll and Frederick County Republican, stood up. He said he understood Benson’s situation, but wanted to know if the highly unusual privilege was a one-time thing. After all, he said, Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, has been called up to active duty in the Maryland Air National Guard. He may be deployed to Afghanistan, and is likely to miss much of the session.
“I ask for the same privilege be extended to him,” Brinkley said.
“Then it will stand at 25-21,” Miller responded. He did not want to allow Benson’s vote to be cast unless her colleagues unanimously approved.
After the session, Benson said she understood Miller’s reasoning, but was disappointed. At the very least, she said, everyone knows how she would have voted on the issue; she spoke in floor debate Thursday morning to say that after consulting with her constituents and listening to her heart, she had decided to vote against the bill.
“I just wanted to formally stand up to let people know my position was the same,” Benson said.