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Does Mike Miller still rule Annapolis?

Alexander Pyles//Daily Record Business Writer//April 23, 2013

Does Mike Miller still rule Annapolis?

By Alexander Pyles

//Daily Record Business Writer

//April 23, 2013

ANNAPOLIS — As state lawmakers took a last look at Baltimore’s 30-year plan to pay for school renovations last month, members of the Budget and Taxation Committee joked that 47-year-old Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. would be president of the Senate by the time the projects were paid for.

For 27 years, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has ruled Annapolis — does he still?

But the Montgomery County Democrat, a talented political negotiator expected by many to rise quickly in the Senate’s leadership ranks, deadpanned his disagreement.

“No, I’ll still be looking up at Miller,” Madaleno said.

Since 1987, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has been president of the Maryland Senate, a period during which the House of Delegates has elected three speakers and Maryland voters have chosen four governors.

But in a state where the population and its elected officials have leaned decidedly to the left, the more conservative Democrat from Southern Maryland (he urges lawmakers to “say no” to some expensive social programs and he owns “quite a number of guns,” to offer a couple of examples) has increasingly found himself at odds with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s increasingly liberal legislative agenda and the Senate’s willingness to accommodate much of it.

Miller’s gut reaction is that he won’t run for office in 2018, assuming he wins another four-year Senate term in 2014 and is again chosen by his peers to be president.

The 70-year-old Miller’s power was on display just last year, when he flexed enough political muscle to help force two special sessions and at least momentarily end the debate on casino gambling in the Free State.

Yet he grit his teeth in 2013, working with other Democratic leaders to abolish a death penalty he once helped reinstate and to enact gun-control legislation that, when signed, will give Maryland some of the nation’s toughest firearm restrictions.

The man many have called the state’s most powerful politician — the lawmaker most capable of killing those bills — actually offered to enable their passage by changing committee structures and voting to suspend to certain Senate rules, showing why newspaper accounts have for decades called Miller a “political survivor.”

“If I was a member of the Senate, I would say 30 years ago … before I was president, I would have voted against both of those bills,” Miller said in a recent interview. “If it was for my generation and my generation alone, I would vote against the bill. … The Maryland legislature has shifted to the left, representing the people. It is what it is.”

Miller has absolute authority in the Senate to set the roster of standing committees, including selecting chairpersons, and also decides to which committee individual bills are assigned. He has also built a loyal coalition of senators through tireless political fundraising efforts, money that is largely distributed to Democratic allies trying to hold on to office.

He became president himself by leading a similar coalition, rising to become chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and deputy majority leader after delivering a bloc of seven votes from Prince George’s County in 1983 to unseat Senate President James Clark and replace him with Sen. Melvin Steinberg.

Steinberg once called Miller “my enforcer.” When Steinberg became lieutenant governor in 1987, Miller filled the Senate’s leadership void.

“There’s any number of things he could have stopped [this year], but he didn’t,” said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

It’s possible, some say, that Miller was repaying a debt accrued from last year’s special sessions and reminding lawmakers that he could “play ball.” It may have also been an attempt to remain politically relevant in his own caucus, Eberly said.

“I think that’s his recognition that, philosophically, he is out of step with a majority of his caucus in the Senate,” he said. “If he’s seen as an obstacle, they probably have the votes to remove him if they want to. His strategy seems to be, ‘I’m not going to use the power I have in order to maintain the position I have.’”

But Miller said his choices this year had nothing to do with holding on to power, and were instead made out of “respect” for the wishes of a majority of the Senate. And onlookers caution against questioning the influence and popularity of a man who has held the reigns of the Senate for 27 years, even if his philosophy and sometimes heavy-handed political methods — when lobbying for or against an issue, he’s been called a “bully” by some — haven’t kept up with the changing demographics in the state.

Newspaper articles going back to the early 1990s have predicted Miller’s ouster from the Senate’s top post, as the Democratic Party has moved to the left and Miller has remained closer to the middle. In 1987 — the year Miller became Senate president — he told The Daily Record: “If I’m right, I can’t be too liberal, and if I’m wrong, I can’t be too conservative.”

Yet he has served as presiding officer uninterrupted, with the only significant coup attempted in 2000 by Baltimore Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who was released from federal prison in February after being sentenced to seven years for bribery.

“When I became president of the Senate, there [were] these very conservative Democrats, more conservative than any of my Republican senators are today,” Miller said. “They’re gone. … When you’re president of the Senate, you have to have a statewide perspective. You also have to respect not only the feelings of your constituents, but you have to understand the floor of the Senate and the members.

“I try to make certain that everyone has their say. … I think that shows up in the demeanor of the body. For example, my Republican senators, they could be lobbing hand grenades up to the front daily. And instead, that doesn’t occur at all. They have their say, and their say is heard on an equal basis as any other member.”

Some Democratic lawmakers — both in the House and Senate — privately praise Miller for his loyalty to the party and willingness to compromise. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who once coveted the president’s post but now is expected to run for Maryland attorney general, said early in the debate on gun control that Miller would not be an obstacle, even though the president did little to hide his distaste for some components of the O’Malley-backed legislation.

Most disturbing to Miller was a requirement that future purchasers of handguns be forced to submit to licensing and fingerprinting. Some lawmakers said that put future gun owners on the same footing as criminals. Miller said that he’d sooner buy a gun in Virginia than give his fingerprints to law enforcement.

But Frosh, who guided the gun-control bill through the Senate, provided a laundry list of professionals — including teachers, jockeys and fortune tellers in Calvert County (where Miller lives) — who are required to submit fingerprints to do their jobs. That seemed to soften the opposition of the Senate president and the stance of some other reluctant lawmakers.

“I suspect that played a role in it,” Frosh said. “I do think the president came into it skeptical of the fingerprinting provision.”

Later, an amendment introduced on the Senate floor to strip the fingerprinting piece from the bill was defeated by just one vote.

“I’d rather there was not the fingerprint to the bill, but it was a close vote,” Miller said. “Will the bill stop major crime from occurring? I don’t believe so. But the bill does send a message that Maryland is serious about criminal conduct.

“I would prefer not to have had a bill, but if we’re going to have a bill, I’m pleased the way it turned out.”

Miller would also have preferred not to repeal the death penalty. In 1978, as a first-term senator, he voted to reinstate the death penalty in Maryland after the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized capital punishment in 1976.

But he promised O’Malley that the issue would come before the full Senate if the governor lined up the 24 votes needed for passage, even if that meant resorting to extraordinary measures to spring the bill from the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

That ultimately was not necessary, and the Senate voted to repeal the death penalty after hours of passionate debate.

“My feelings were mixed, because it’s not working and it hasn’t been allowed to work by the courts and by this administration,” Miller said. “Justice has to be swift and it has to be sure in order to be effective and these people just hang around on death row.”

It’s unclear what kind of career a politician with Miller’s philosophies could have in a Democratic stronghold like Maryland (nearly 56 percent of Maryland voters are registered Democrats). But Miller, by showing his willingness to compromise on some issues, has remained relevant.

“He did himself a favor this session, there’s no question about that,” Eberly said. “Now the progressive part of that caucus is not going to view him as an obstacle. They’ll see him as someone who will play along and help. … He showed that, yeah, he can play ball.”

Miller said he plans to ask former President Bill Clinton to host a fundraiser for him this summer, in preparation for at least one more run in 2014. He realizes he’s often at odds with the liberal wing of his own party, but said he has more work to do to improve the environment and help Maryland farmers.

Beyond 2014, Miller seems unsure.

“No,” he said bluntly when asked if he would run in 2018, before transitioning into an abrupt backpedal. “You don’t want to say ‘no.’ … We’ll see what happens.”

Even in a session where Miller’s power was rarely showcased — at least publicly — he was still frequently on the mind of state leaders.

On the legislature’s final day this month, O’Malley met with a gaggle of reporters in a basement hallway of the State House. As the governor answered questions about the General Assembly session, he kept being interrupted by bells, which ring daily at the direction of the legislature’s presiding officers to alert lawmakers that session is ready to start.

These bells happened to be for the House, not the Senate. But the sound is almost identical, and the governor apparently didn’t know the difference as he spoke between the ringing.

“It’s Miller’s way of letting us know he’s still in charge,” O’Malley quipped.


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