Joseline Peña-Melnyk, Woman of the People

Joseline Peña (maiden name) was a natural supporter of the trust act. She was born in the Dominican Republic and raised by a single mother, who made her living working in the New York garment industry. The struggling family was forced to live on welfare at one time, something that Peña-Melnyk points to as instrumental in formulating her desire for public advocacy.

She was the first in her family to attend or graduate from college and went on to obtain her doctorate in law (J.D.)

After receiving her law degree, Delegate Peña-Melnyk pursued worked as an attorney for abused and neglected children and a defense attorney for impoverished people accused of crimes. She was recruited to serve as an Assistant United States Attorney under US Attorney Eric Halderman, prosecuting criminal cases before turning to elected public service, first on the College Park City Council and then the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006. The voters have shown their appreciation for her service by electing her three times to that position.

 

"Is There Anything I Can Do?"

How's your family? Please, please. If there is anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.

We were walking swiftly down a narrow corridor, but that swift journey moved in fits and starts. That was easily the fifth time I had heard those words spring from the Maryland Delegate's lips that day, as she stopped to connect with people just inside the doorways of the offices that lined the corridor.

This time, she grasped the woman's hands in both of hers and wrinkled up her eyes and nose for emphasis. With over twenty years spent shadowing candidates and elected officials, I knew this was a typical politician's statement, presented with the typical "I really mean this" demeanor. I had heard it many, many times before. Even taught the gesture when my role was assisting, rather than covering, the politician. I heard it several times more that day.

Big difference. By the end of the day, the Delegate had broken through my normal attitude of optimistic cynicism. I was a fangirl.

- Melody Curtiss


Because, when Joseline Peña-Melnyk says "if there's anything I can do for you, I will," I absolutely believe she means it. I could tell the folks she spoke to believed it as well.

 

They had every reason to. Because it's the truth.

Staff at every level, the people she represents, fellow Delegates, even the Governor's Chief of Staff, all know Joseline Peña-Melnyk as an ethical, hard working, passionate and compassionate advocate who will go the extra mile for anybody - anybody at all - when she believes it is the right thing to do.

...amazing." 

"...our favorite."

"...our sunshine."

"Hardest worker in the House!"

"I count on her."

"I follow her lead."

These were statements volunteered to me as I trailed after her.

Some meetings were chance, some planned. But none were planned for my benefit.

She wasn't showboating. I can't vote for her. I can't campaign for or against her. Delegate Peña-Melnyk had no idea that I was covering her for this story. In the beginning, neither did I.

Advocacy.News was a project in its infancy.  

 

"Is There Anything I Can Do?"

It's how I met her as well. The first words she uttered to me.

I was there as an interested citizen, learning about the Maryland State House of Delegates process on cross-over day. I don't live in Prince George’s or Anne Arundel County.  I was there because I needed a job to support my advocacy "hobbies" and I had worked at two state legislatures before. I was there because somebody referred me to the delegate, and she instantly said "is there anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to ask." When she suggested I come shadow her and she would introduce me to Maryland's House, I jumped at the chance. 

So I went. And I took notes. As I took notes, I began to imagine writing this story. I hadn't thought of the Delegate as an "advocate," but rather as one of the divine policy-makers to whom advocates pray for intervention.

As I shadowed Joseline Peña-Melnyk, I remembered the way I saw elected officials thirty years ago.  

It was one of the most high-pressure days during the session, but you couldn't have told from watching this woman work. I watched as she made her way from her office building to the floor of the State House, speaking to security guards, librarians, citizen advocates, politicians, and advocates all along the way. She looked as if that moment was the most important moment of her day. It wasn't faked, either. She was giving them her full attention and sincere regard.

Delegate Peña-Melnyk offered up more cheer, support and information in that five minute walk and gained more ground on key negotiations than I've seen some officials manage during a full term. "I will speak to the bill," she promised one worried advocate. "I'm supporting that, you know!" 

Ever vigilant of my needs, the Delegate insisted that I take time to go outside and enjoy the beautiful spring day, even though she was trapped inside. I enjoyed my 30 minute break, walking through the gorgeous city of Annapolis, but I was eager to get back. Like all the staffers I had encountered, I was becoming a bit of a Peña-Melnyk groupie.

I made it back in time to sit in on a conference call that doubled as her lunch hour. She was discussing a way that government, private industry, and educational institutions could work together to circumvent an emerging crisis for the people of her district. 

Her focus was laser beam sharp - as it was all day long - on the vulnerable people in Maryland who were counting on them to solve this problem. Without her leadership, these people would lose access to affordable, local healthcare in a hospital doomed to close in the near future. She reviewed her plan with staff before the call. Then she listened, advocated, negotiated and connected with every person on the call. Recognizing the business goals of the private sector, she acknowledged them and pointed to her understanding of mutual benefits for the organizations and people present at the table. She imbued the ongoing work with her personal style. 

Later in the day, she rose to support the Trust Act, House Bill 1362.

The legislation was controversial, and would put Maryland in direct confrontation with emerging federal policies toward undocumented residents and unauthorized immigrants. She directed attention to the words and the clear intentions of the language. She read aloud the precise language of the bill - (waived upon introduction to "save time.")

Her impassioned remarks highlighted the subtle misdirection of it's opponents in characterizing the legislative intent and/or effects of the proposed law. She spoke articulately, revealing deep convictions and personal connections, the hallmark of her style of advocacy. She faced her opposition with an open and honest demeanor and absolute adherence to the integrity of the democratic process.She is in constant motion. Even when she sat at her desk and hastily ate her lunch during the course of that busy legislative day, she was working. 

The bill passed the House of Delegates that day and went to the Senate.

 

I followed the progress of the legislation and Delegate Peña-Melnyk's role in the process after that night. On another day, her passion for the welfare of vulnerable people brought her to her feet again, publicly chiding those whose failure to rise in support of the Trust Act was disappointing and ultimately fatal to the passage of the law. She called Baltimore County Senator Bobby Zirkin a "Democrat in name only," when the legislation (watered down as it was) did not garner the enthusiastic support that seemed a natural function of democracy to this deeply dedicated servant of the people.

The more controversial portions of the bill had been excised by that point and the "sanctuary" nature of the act seemed to be more in name as well. Still, it didn't help that an incident of gang rape was alleged to have occurred in a Rockville, Maryland high school - and one or two of the accused perpetrators were likewise accused of being unauthorized residents or undocumented immigrants with a prior history of violence.

Governor Hogan, a republican, pointed to the incident as justification for proposed new federal immigration policies, including demands that local police stretch limited resources and expend city, county and state dollars for federal immigration enforcement efforts. The responsive Maryland legislation, if passed, would have precluded law enforcement from asking Maryland residents for proof of citizenship during traffic stops, and from holding people past their date of release after serving a jail sentence without a federal warrant. Maybe it's the old constitutional lawyer in me that fails to recognize the controversy in those provisions - since the US Supreme Court already said that would be illegal. Cooperation to identify unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes in Maryland was still authorized. The only requirement to hold them in jail was a federal warrant.  Despite being a near mirror of the Supreme Court ruling, Delegate Herb McMillan, a republican, called the legislation a betrayal of public trust. Perhaps the Maryland legislature was concerned how it would look to the newly elected President, who had so recently decreed unauthorized immigrants target number one in his efforts to purge the "undesirables" from our country.  

Peña-Melnyk may not have been as surprised at the outcome as she was outraged by the lack of support from fellow democrats. She spoke with reserved optimism of the legislation's chances of survival through the next chamber. Her words seemed anguished and angry. But I have no doubt that her actions on the day it failed, just as they were on the day it advanced, were true to her nature.

Delegate Peña-Melnyk is that rare creature. She understands her role in a representative democracy is one of service and humility. Whether she speaks with strong emotion and without reservation, with succinct clarity or just quietly listens, she stands in their shoes.

Joseline Peña-Melnyk is a stateswoman, not a politician. She is a leader to emulate at every level, not just a Maryland Delegate in College Park worthy of re-election. But I certainly hope they do. She represents not just the people of her district, but the best part of all of us. 

 

 

Delegate Peña-Melnyk was unsuccessful in a 2016 bid for congress, but made an impressive showing. She was endorsed for that position by the Washington Post, although she was facing two popular Democratic candidate with far more name recognition - including the ultimate victor,  Anthony Brown, who previously served as Maryland's Lt. Governor. 

That loss did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm to serve her community. Her unflagging advocacy for her constituents shows a unique understanding of the power of the process. She founded the House of Delegate's Hispanic Caucus, and advocated for its recognition, an uphill battle she very much enjoys recounting.

As the mother of two teenage daughters and an adult son, we can only hope that she has passed this passion for public service along with her keen understanding of the demands of democracy to the next generation. 

 

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