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The presumptive Senate leader: Ferguson seeks consensus but is willing to fight

Sen. Bill Ferguson sits in the Senate in 2017. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Bill Ferguson sits in the Senate in 2017. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Those who have worked with Baltimore’s Sen. William “Bill” Ferguson describe the legislator as detail oriented, with a talent for building consensus and the courage to be forthright with bad news.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who has held the position since 1987, said he was stepping down on Thursday. Senate Democrats then said they unanimously intend to vote for the 36-year-old Ferguson to succeed Miller.

“There is no one that can replace Mike Miller,” Ferguson said at a Thursday news conference. “And what was clear over the past few months as this transition seemed more likely is that the only way that we will move forward is if we maximize the skills and talents of each of the 47 members of the Maryland Senate.”

Those who previously worked with Ferguson expressed optimism about his ability to do the job, even if on the surface he appears a dramatic departure from Miller.

“When you think of someone who is intelligent, strategic, and gets into the weeds, that’s Sen. Ferguson,” Sen. Cory McCray, of Baltimore, said.

While Miller and Ferguson belong to the Democratic Party they are separated by more than 40 years in age, and their differences on certain policy issues reflect the party’s leftward drift in recent years.

Miller’s from relatively rural Clinton in Prince George’s County, and has faced accusations he’s too conservative for a party that’s increasingly urban and liberal.

The outgoing Senate president is known for not suffering fools and using a sharp tongue to coral a sometimes unwieldy caucus or to battle a pair of Republican governors. His blunt style also got him in trouble on occasion, like in 1989 when during an interview he called Baltimore, “A God damn ghetto … it’s shit … it’s a war zone.”

Meanwhile, Ferguson represents Baltimore and has a reputation for building consensus while crafting legislation. He’s also shown himself to be more liberal than Miller on issues such as education spending and criminal justice.

Odette Ramos, a Baltimore City Council candidate and executive director of the Community Development Network of Maryland, has worked with Ferguson on various bills, including legislation last session to boost the transparency of investments in Maryland’s opportunity zones.

Ferguson gathered stakeholders ranging from workforce development advocates to banks and managed to hammer out legislation in about four weeks, she said, and then steered the bill through the Senate.

“It was insane, but he did it,” Ramos said.

Del. Brooke Lierman, who has shared a district with Ferguson since she was first elected in 2014, praised the job he has done in promoting teamwork and creating an atmosphere where legislators aren’t fighting over turf.

She and Ferguson send their children to the same public school in the city, she said, so she believes that perspective will help him as the state begins to figure out how to pay for the recommendations of the Kirwan Committee.

“Bill’s a champion for children and public schools,” Lierman said.

Ferguson was born in Silver Spring and received his Bachelor of Arts in political science and economics in 2005 from Davidson College in North Carolina. He returned to Maryland to work as a high school teacher in Baltimore through Teach for America.

He earned a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2007 from Johns Hopkins University and his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2010.

In 2010, Ferguson won election to the state Senate, unseating incumbent Democrat George W. Della, Jr., in a primary with 59% of the vote. He faced no opposition in the general election. He has since been reelected to the Senate twice, in 2014 and 2018.

In the Senate, Ferguson served as chair of the Executive Nominations Committee. In the 2019 session he was vice chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. He also served on the Kirwan Commission.

Despite his reputation as a consensus builder, Ferguson has flashed a willingness to use sharp elbows in political fights.

In the 2018 Democratic primary, Ferguson, Lierman and Del. Luke Clippinger campaigned hard for Del. Robbyn Lewis, who was appointed to the position in 2016, to retain that seat.

Challenger Nate Lowentheil, who previously worked for President Barack Obama’s administration, criticized the delegation for not doing enough to thwart the violence plaguing Baltimore.

Ferguson pounced, criticizing Lowentheil’s campaign for the amount it was spending on the race, called the challenger disingenuous. He hammered Lowentheil’s support for a state bill creating mandatory minimum sentences for guns crimes.

Ahead of the 2019 General Assembly session, before an ethics scandal that eventually forced Mayor Catherine Pugh out of office had surfaced, Ferguson criticized the mayor for her stewardship of the police department.

During a speech to the Greater Baltimore Committee spelling out legislative priorities, he criticized the 10 months the city went without a full-time police commissioner and compared it to playing a football game without a quarterback.

Those who worked with him said that just because he’s amicable doesn’t mean he lacks candor.

“He’s had to say to me, ‘Odette that’s going to lose,” she said.

While planning his run for House of Delegates in 2014, McCray said Ferguson was the first person to review his proposals. Now in the Senate, McCray said he and his fellow Democrats feel Ferguson has what it takes to do the job

“There was the consensus that Bill Ferguson was the person to lead our chamber,” he said.


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