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The End Of An Era In The Maryland Senate

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Karen Hosler
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The Maryland General Assembly’s abrupt departure this week from its annual session obscured the end of another, gentler era.  Mike Miller, who guided the Senate for 33 years before stepping down to join the newcomers in the back benches, was missing.

Miller, who has prostate cancer, had been hospitalized a week earlier complaining of pains.

Now, current and former members are remembering their times with him on the rostrum.

There was a day last year when he called the body to order with the usual question, “Has everybody recorded their presence in the chamber?”

But then he noticed one senator who didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“The senator from District 24,” he intoned. “If you want to put your newspaper down and record your presence in the chamber? Record your presence, senator. Thank you so much.”  

As laughter rippled through the room, that senator, Joanne Benson, paused at first, then put down her paper and joined her laughing colleagues.

“I was not offended at all by his remarks,” she said recently. “I just thought like everybody else, it was Senator Miller and himself.”

Miller, 77, was the longest serving state Senate President in the nation before he yielded to Baltimore Democrat Bill Ferguson. Still, he wasn’t willing to give up the Senate entirely.

“I think that he loves the Senate so much that he felt like he couldn’t preside over it very well because he didn’t have the energy, strength and stamina,” said State Health Secretary Robert Neall, a former Republican senator and close friend of Miller’s. “But he didn’t want to walk away.”

In any case, his extraordinary half century of Senate service reflects a gift for the wheeling and dealing of legislative politics that won’t easily be matched.

Neall said a key element of his success is his self-deprecating personality.

“A lot of people saw the awe shucks, southern Maryland, good old boy, hail fellow, well met,” said Neall. “He was probably the smartest and shrewdest person I’ve ever encountered in my life.  But he operated behind that façade.  He had more gears than a semi transmission and he would use it in order to get his way.”

Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives—and a former Maryland Senate president, himself, said Miller “hid a brilliant mind behind this sort of rough exterior.”

“And that’s why he was president of the Senate for longer than any person in history,” he said. 

Miller, Hoyer and Neall were all products of southern Princes Georges County politics, based in a 100-year-old country store in Clinton owned by the Miller family and that specializes in liquor and beef.     

Hoyer said Miller’s ailing health seemed to have made him more mellow.

“Mike has said some things, you know, very warm, endearing things when we’ve met, which I’ve appreciated,” he said, slowly tapping his hand on his desk. “And you know you are sad,” he went on, choking back tears, “that you are having that kind of conversation with someone you’ve known for so long.”

Miller and former House Speaker Michael Busch were long-time co-leaders of Maryland  legislative politics known as “the Mikes.”

It was just about a year ago that Miller, guiding the Senate through a voting session, shared the news of a grave illness that would take Busch the day before the 2019 session ended.  

“I talk to him as best he can, but he is really, really suffering from pneumonia and we don’t think he’s going to be back,” Miller said. “He’s a fighter. We hope he comes back, but we’ll do the best we can.”

Now, lawmakers in Annapolis are wondering whether Miller will be back next session.