Gov. Larry Hogan and current and former members of the Maryland Senate shared memories Friday of Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. in a special session in the chamber Miller loved.
Miller, the longest serving state senate president in U.S. history, died last week, more than two years after he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer.
His colleagues remembered the man as someone with an outsized personality and an unparalleled mastery of state politics.
As Hogan started speaking about his friend of nearly 60 years, he stared at the portrait of Miller hanging in the Senate chamber.
“I've seen that look many times over the years, like he's getting ready to lambaste me if I go off course, maybe say something a little too partisan,” he said.
Hogan first met Miller in 1962. Miller was 19 and working for Frank Small, a Republican running for governor against J. Millard Tawes.
“Mike had two main jobs in that campaign: One was to get Frank Small elected governor, and also to occasionally babysit 5-year-old me,” said Hogan. “Mike went 0 for two that year, and that may explain why after that election, he became a lifelong, committed, passionate Democrat.”
Since then, Hogan, a Republican, has found himself opposite the long-time Democratic leader in many political fights.
“When Mike was your opponent, you knew you were in for a battle,” he said. “But when he was on your side, he was really on your side.”
Baltimore County Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who served as minority leader until last year, was surprised how much he liked Miller, the leader of the other party.
“We're supposed to hate each other and fight,” Jennings recalled thinking. “But I found out, I love the guy — many of us did. I mean, he was a passionate person. He cared about us, he cared about our families, and he built relationships with us that meant a lot.”
Jennings said Miller had a knack for distracting Republicans to throw them off their game. One time during a particularly contentious debate, he and then-Minority Whip Steve Hershey went to talk with Miller on the dais.
“Mike's like, ‘I get it. I get it. I understand.’ And all of a sudden he goes and he points to one of the statues up there and says, ‘You know, this marble came from the Eastern Shore,’ or something. And my seatmate goes, ‘Really?’ And he starts talking about it,” Jennings said. “I'm like, ‘Hey! Get back on subject!’”
Jennings and Anne Arundel County Sen. Brian Simonaire, the current minority leader, both spoke of Miller’s respect for members of their party.
“He made sure every one of us was part of the team,” Jennings said. “We might not be rowing the right way or the same way, but at least we knew we were part of the fight. We could say what we felt, fight as hard as we can, as long as we respected each other.”
Simonaire said Miller made the Republicans feel respected and listened to.
“I think that's a big reason Annapolis is not like Washington D.C.,” he said.
Their words echoed Miller’s own, who said when he announced his resignation that his legacy would be that “ all 47 senators are treated equally, regardless of political party and regardless of where they came from in terms of geography.”
And though he was known to give Republicans a fair shake, despite their minority status, Miller also was known for speaking his mind.
Before this year’s session, Senate President Bill Ferguson sent Miller a text message with a picture of the Plexiglass maze surrounding every members’ desk to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Uncharacteristically, Miller didn’t respond for two days. So Ferguson called him.
“‘Bill,’” Ferguson recalled Miller saying, ‘You've made our Senate floor look like a G-D kindergarten classroom.’ In only the way that Mike could. He’d been stewing on it for a day and a half to give that piece of advice.”
That level of profanity was pretty tame by Miller’s standards, as the recently retired Maryland Health Secretary and one-time Sen. Bobby Neall recalled.
“I envied his command of profanity, a true art form,” Neall said. “He would use all the words and all the parts of speech and would weave them into a ribald tapestry, a torrent of words that would fill the air and linger — true poetry. It was symphonic, awe inspiring.”
Several speakers recalled Miller’s knack for knowing how every member would vote, sometimes before they knew themselves. And nothing of note ever passed the Senate without Miller’s backing.
Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores Kelley said the last time she and Miller really spoke about a bill, he said he would offer a “friendly amendment” — a term used to describe an amendment that furthers the bill’s goals.
She said Miller told her, “’I don’t ‘like the G-D bill, but I'm going to help you.’”
Happy to have the help, she accepted, and the amendment passed.
“And I realized later, the amendment really made the bill worth nothing,” she said. “But I had given my word.”
After nearly 50 years representing his Southern Maryland district in the legislature and more than 30 leading the Senate, Miller leaves behind a wide-reaching legacy.
“We can see Mike Miller's legacy everywhere,” Hogan said.“Public education, higher education, the Chesapeake Bay, our health care system all bear the indelible mark of Thomas v. Mike Miller Jr.”
Miller was to lie in repose under the State House dome for a visitation with local elected officials, statehouse and legislative staff, and friends and other invited guests until 7 p.m. when the president emeritus’ casket was to be taken from the state house in a motorcade down Rowe Boulevard to US Route 50.
Funeral services are private.