Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Miller, Maryland’s ‘lion of the Senate,’ dies at 78

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, speaks in 2019 during The Daily Record's Annapolis Summit event on the first day of the legislative session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. speaks in 2019 during The Daily Record’s Annapolis Summit event on the first day of the legislative session. (The Daily Record file)

Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Maryland’s longest-serving Senate president and a towering figure in the state’s politics for decades, died Friday afternoon after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 78.

“At 4:25 p.m. this afternoon, Maryland Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. passed away peacefully at his home, surrounded by loved ones,” the family said in a statement. “He’s survived by his wife, Patti, son Tommy, daughters, Amanda, Michelle, Melissa, and Melanie, sisters Susan, Cynthia, Melinda, Nancy, and Kim, brothers, Jonathan, David, and Mark, and his fifteen grandchildren, and was predeceased by his sister Judith.”

Arrangements for Miller’s funeral were not yet available.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who considered Miller a lifelong friend, ordered Maryland flags to be lowered to half-staff until sunset on the day of the former Senate leader’s interment.

“Maryland has lost one of its most revered leaders, and I have lost a dear lifelong friend,” Hogan said in a statement. “Serving the people of our great state was Mike Miller’s life’s work, and he did so with unrelenting passion and courage for a remarkable 50 years. Even as he waged a hard-fought battle with cancer, I was blessed to continue to benefit from Mike’s wisdom and trademark humor. He was, in every sense, a lion of the Senate.

“The First Lady and I extend our most heartfelt condolences to President Miller’s wife, Patti, their five children and 15 grandchildren, his Senate colleagues, and all who loved him,” he said.

News of Miller’s death came just hours after news that he had started to receive hospice care.

Miller’s condition had deteriorated since he announced his resignation from the Senate last month.

In the following weeks, he described being in constant pain and unable to sit up, weakened by an aggressive prostate cancer that spread to his bones.

“It is impossible to think of the Maryland Senate and not think of Mike — not just because of his historical longevity — but because each member of the Senate has his or her own Mike story,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said in a statement. “Whether it’s the  Senator who he quietly consoled through family matters, the Senator who he mentored to compromise and pass legislation, or those who experienced the personal care of Mike to truly listen to their concerns. There are thousands of former Senators, Delegates, staffers, and constituents in the 27th District that he has impacted for the better, and who each have their own Mike Miller story. I expect we’ll hear many of them in the days and weeks ahead, and I hope the public will listen and get a glimpse of the impact Mike made.”

House Speaker Adrienne Jones, in a statement, expressed sadness at hearing the news of Miller’s death.

“Mike was a giant and a legend, who served the people of Maryland for a half century. Anyone, anywhere with a sense of history or politics will know the name Mike Miller,” she said. “I was fortunate to have received his counsel and advice when I became Speaker. He was as kind and generous as he was powerful: a combination that leads to a once-in-a-generation leader and statesman who we can all emulate.”

Born in 1942 in Clinton, Miller was the oldest of 10 children. He grew up working in the family business, B.K. Miller, a grocery and liquor store. He frequently said he learned his customer service-based political skills there.

Miller praised his mother for guiding his life and for encouraging him to seek public office.

Miller said his time working in the store was where he “learned that the customer was always on the right side. You gotta help the customer out. You gotta be available to help the public, and I worked long hours, hard work, and I brought those attributes to the Senate of Maryland.”

He left the family business to attend the University of Maryland. He graduated in 1964 with a degree in business administration and in 1967 with a degree in law.

Miller served one term in the House of Delegates after being elected in 1970. He was then elected to the Maryland Senate, where he served for 45 years, including 33 years as leader of the chamber. He was so powerful that a building that houses the offices of some senators and all of the committee hearing rooms was named for him.

Over the decades, Miller’s hair transitioned from a red that could sometimes match his fiery temper to an elder statesman silver. But that transition didn’t soften his personality, and he was quick to poke fun of other lawmakers or tell sometimes awkward, cringe-worthy stories that became the basis for blog posts.

He once promised to bury then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich  and the Republican Party “six feet deep, faces up, so they won’t come out for 20 years.”

He also feuded with members of his own party. When William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor of Baltimore, became governor, Miller publicly mocked him during the Legislative Follies, the now-defunct irreverent skit show put on by lawmakers during session.

In another instance of ire against a former Baltimore mayor who later became governor, Miller chided Martin O’Malley after the then-mayor criticized the legislature for not acting on legislation he favored. Miller responded dismissively, saying “Little boats should stay close to the shore.”

Similarly, he had a long-running feud with  Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot.

In 2007, Franchot criticized the state’s move to legalize gambling. An angry Miller responded by cutting the position of Len Foxwell, one of Franchot’s top aides, from the budget —albeit temporarily. The two spent the next several years trading terse comments with reporters and in letters to each other.

In 2018, Franchot took on Miller, declaring him part of a political machine.

“A major reason for our broken system is Senate President Mike Miller,” Franchot said at the time. “A man who has been in the Maryland General Assembly for close to 50 years and is now the longest-serving senate president in the United States. A man who goes to work every day in a cathedral-like building that bears his name — even as tens of thousands of children go to school in classrooms that lack heat and air conditioning.”

He attended a “Take a Hike Mike” rally held during session outside the State House and later endorsed Tommy Makila, who was seeking to unseat Miller in the Democratic Primary that year.

On Friday night, Franchot expressed sadness over the news of Miller’s death.

Senate President Miller’s legacy is that of a masterful legislator, a committed public servant, and a man whose life’s work is interwoven in our state’s history,” Franchot wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “May future generations be inspired by Senate President Miller’s unwavering commitment to public service and may we honor his legacy by continuing to better the state that he loved so dearly. Rest in Peace, Mr. President.”

Miller could also be very open about his own political positions and said he’d likely be judged to be “on the wrong side of history” even as he voted against same-sex marriage.

Other senators would tease him that he had been there so long he could remember when George Washington had resigned his commission.

Miller, an avid reader, had stacks of books covering the top of a coffee table in his corner office in the State House. The piles rotated frequently. Many of the books were purchased from remainder tables in bookstores.

Miller would frequently lecture lawmakers on history, ranging from Maryland’s to national and world politics. During a debate he once reminded senators of the importance of understanding the rules and described himself, in his first years in the House of Delegates, as a person who never concerned himself with learning the rules.

In reality, there were few better at navigating the complex rules that guide all of the work in the Senate.

In 2012, he played chicken with O’Malley, who was then governor, and House Speaker Michael Busch over his desire to create a sixth casino license that would go directly to Prince George’s County. When the effort failed in the House, Miller allowed the session to end before finalizing the budget, imposing a doomsday funding scenario.

The result angered Busch and O’Malley but ultimately led to an agreement to return for two special sessions. The first in May finalized the budget and eliminated the doomsday scenario. The second in August resulted in the creation of a sixth license and the building of the MGM National Harbor casino in Miller’s beloved Prince George’s County.

He was a dominant presence in the chamber who ruled by force of personality, knowledge of his members and legislative rules, and a canny ability to forge alliances. Some had prematurely started to write his political obituary following the 2018 election when candidates from the progressive wing of his party unseated Sens. Thomas Middleton and Nathaniel McFadden, two key Democratic allies from Southern Maryland and Baltimore, respectively.

But Miller, a master of personal relationships, quickly began meeting with members, including Sen. Cory McCray, who defeated McFadden in a bitter primary in which the incumbent’s relationship with Miller was, at times, an issue. By the time the 2019 session started, Miller had put down the dreams of a few senators who imagined they could grasp the gavel and secured the votes needed to retain his leadership of the chamber.

McCray was one of two senators to nominate Miller from the floor.

“Maryland is better because of his leadership,” McCray said of Miller Friday night. “Senator Miller gave all he had to all he could. I will miss his institutional knowledge. My condolences are with his family at this time.”

Similarly, Miller built relationships with Senate Republicans even as they vehemently disagreed with him.

“As Senate President, he fostered a culture of collegiality and mutual respect, regardless of political party. Reaching a hand across the aisle was never the wrong thing to do. As our nation and state navigate tumultuous and challenging times, we would all be wise to remember his legacy and remain steadfast in our commitment to do the work of the people,” said Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire.

Sen. Mike Hough, R-Frederick and Senate minority whip, won a seat in the chamber unseating then Sen. David Brinkley. Hough campaigned that Brinkley worked too closely with Miller.

“Even though we were on opposing sides of the aisle, he served as a mentor to me on what it meant to be a Maryland State Senator,” said Hough. “From ensuring proper dress protocol on the floor to instructing senators how to debate on the floor to forging collaboration and compromise. Miller throughout his career strived to remind us all that Maryland is a state of middle temperament.”

Even in the years that would become Miller’s last leading the Senate, he remained a powerful force.

“Sure, Miller is not as powerful as he once was, but that’s like saying the sun is not as hot as it once was. It’s still pretty hot,” said Todd Eberly, political science professor at St. Mary’s College, said in a 2018 interview about political challengers to Miller who believed he had lost a step.

Miller’s era on the rostrum began to fade in January of 2019 when he announced he was battling an aggressive prostate cancer that had already moved to his bones. He continued to serve as Senate president while being treated in Baltimore.

By the end of the year, however, it became clear that his health battle was taking a toll. He announced 10 months later that he would not seek reelection as Senate president.

Miller continued to work while receiving treatment and serving as the first Senate president emeritus, a position created for him and enshrined in the rules of the Senate.

But just before Christmas, Miller said it became clear he could not continue.

“I thought I could continue on,” Miller said in a Dec. 23 virtual meeting with reporters. “My mind is fine but the cancer is in all my bones. My body is wracked with pain, and so as a consequence, physically, I am not able to do the job. I have no strength in my right side, and to be a state senator you gotta be available 24 hours a day mentally as well as physically able.”

To purchase a reprint of this article, contact [email protected].