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After 33 Years, Maryland Senate Gets New Leader

Rachel Baye

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller announced Thursday that he is relinquishing his gavel when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis in January. The 76 year old has cancer and several related health issues.

“My mind is still strong but my body is weak,” Miller said at a press conference Thursday. “This is a fulltime job. It’s a statewide job. And we need somebody younger.”

Miller is the longest continuously serving senate president in the country, having held the position since 1987. Those who have watched and worked with Miller describe him as a savvy politician with a wealth of institutional knowledge. They say that above all, he strives to protect the institution and its members — on both sides of the political aisle, whether he agrees with them or not.

“Senate President Miller is one of the most consequential state legislative figures of the 20th and 21st century in the United States of America,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones said in a written statement. “He quite literally defines what it means to be a presiding officer in the modern political era.”

Miller has been a “strong, unifying leader,” Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement. “His steady presence and trademark humor will be deeply missed as President.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh remembers the first time he met Miller. Frosh, then a new member of the House of Delegates, was trying to shepherd a bill he sponsored through the Senate. He met with Miller to ask for help but was unsuccessful in getting the Senate president’s support.

“I walk out of his office. The knife is still sticking out of my back. I know my bill is dead. I know I've been handled. And I still am thinking to myself, well, he killed my bill, but what a nice guy,” Frosh said.

Frosh later served for 20 years in the state Senate under Miller, including 12 years as the head of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Frosh said Miller has always had a knack for getting the pulse of the Senate.

“He could tell where every senator was going to vote before some of the senators knew that was the way they were going to vote, and he had a personal relationship with every single member,” Frosh said. “He knew who they were married to, he knew who their kids were, he knew where they went to school.”

Those relationships have aided Miller’s efforts to help Senate Democrats — even those he disagrees with — get reelected, said Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College.

“He really cares about his party and he cares about the institution, and so I think he's done a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that those senators can be reelected and can kind of have the institutional support to get many of their legislative priorities through the chamber,” Deckman said.

Democrats hold 32 seats in the 47-member body. But Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings said Miller makes sure that Republicans’ voices are heard.

“In the House you didn’t see that. Republicans were ostracized, kept to the side. They weren’t allowed to defend bills on the floor,” Jennings said. “Here in the Senate, you see Republicans take more bills to the floor than some of their fellow colleagues.”

Miller has a “strong bipartisan streak,” that has allowed him to work more effectively with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Deckman said. “I think if anything, Hogan's going to have a tougher time without Mike Miller in the state Senate."

At times, Miller has been known to temper some of senators’ more progressive policy proposals.

"We have some very progressive sensibilities in this state, and I think on many occasions Senator Miller has been the force to sort of pump the brakes and make sure Marylanders are getting sort of the best possible deal out of that liberal ideation,” said Damian O’Doherty, a founding partner of KO Public Affairs, whose employees work as lobbyists in Annapolis. O’Doherty worked on staff with several members of the Senate in the late ‘90s.

Miller’s moderating influence has helped to minimize discord in the Senate, O’Doherty said. Miller manages to find ways to help legislators from urban areas while also helping legislators from rural Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore.

“He was able to really gain the confidence of these folks and say, ‘Look, I'll protect what's important to your people on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland, but you've got to give me a look outside the box on perhaps this more progressive policy,’” O’Doherty said. “And then when they didn't abide by him, he was able to use the full force of legislative maneuvering to make something happen.”

After 33 years as Senate president, Miller is trading his spot at the rostrum at the front of the chamber for a seat on the floor. He plans to finish out his four-year term representing his district in Southern Maryland, which he was first elected to represent in the House of Delegates in 1970.

“It’s been a great run. I have enjoyed every minute of it. I think the Senate is more inclusive because of me. It’s been productive because of all of us working together. And it’s been a great place to live and place to work,” Miller said through tears on Thursday. “It’s been the happiest years of my life.”

To succeed Miller as president, the Democratic Caucus has nominated 36-year-old Sen. Bill Ferguson, who has represented South Baltimore since 2011.

“There is no one that can replace Mike Miller,” Ferguson said at Thursday’s press conference. “The wealth of knowledge and experience that he has provided over these many years is unmatched.”

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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