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The Lion of the Senate

At 70, Maryland’s longest-serving Senate President isn’t stepping aside anytime soon

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Reality set in during the 11th hour of the final day of the General Assembly last April at the State House in Annapolis. The last day of session—known as sine die, which in Latin means to adjourn without assigning a further date to return—often goes late into the night, with the state Senate and House of Delegates working overtime to pass hundreds of last-minute bills. When the clock strikes midnight, confetti and balloons drop from the balcony and the state’s lawmakers go home until next year. On April 9, 2012, there was no confetti or balloons.

With time running out to pass a series of bills that make up the state’s multi-billion dollar budget, House Speaker Michael Busch attempted to extend the session, only to have such a motion rejected by the Senate. In the end, the legislature met its constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget, but failed to advance a revenue bill for the first time in two decades, thus incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in “doomsday” education and public-safety cuts.

As shell-shocked lawmakers exited the chamber, blame was almost immediately laid at the feet of one man: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

A longtime proponent of gambling, which began with his early support for slot machines at race tracks and expanded to include casino table games, Miller was accused by many of holding up the budget bills. To political observers, it appeared that Miller had sabotaged the bill, blocking Busch’s attempt to extend the session in retaliation for the House’s failure to pass a gaming bill that would license a sixth casino at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, which Miller represents.

Miller received criticism in the editorial pages of nearly every state newspaper and in a radio appearance on WBAL, Comptroller Peter Franchot called on him to step aside, fueling speculation that a shakeup of Senate leadership for the first time in 25 years was imminent.

Miller denies the accusations that he had somehow hijacked the budget. “That wasn’t about gambling, honestly and truly,” he says today. “The end of the session was about the budget, and it was about taxation. The gambling issue was sort of a sideshow in that regard.”

But his comments at the end of the session lent credence to the theory. Speaking to reporters after a chilly bill signing with Busch and O’Malley the morning after sine die for the legislation they did pass, Miller pointed fingers at Busch, saying they had reached an agreement on a gambling bill, but Busch hadn’t delivered the votes. As for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s frustration with the General Assembly’s failure to pass a revenue bill? A recalcitrant Miller responded, “He’s not a happy camper right now. He’ll get over it.”

Miller was right, too. O’Malley did get over it and called legislators back to Annapolis for two special sessions this summer, one to pass the revenue bill and the other to consider the expansion of gambling. O’Malley even became a proponent of additional gambling in the state, despite a lukewarm attitude toward the bill initially. Ultimately, the General Assembly approved both measures, exemplifying a saying common in Annapolis: “Mike Miller could get the votes to burn down the State House.”

There are no lawmakers in Annapolis quite like Miller, known simply as Mike to many around the State House. At times thoughtful and sincere, he can quickly become belligerent and manipulative. He can be kind, but also possesses a singular ability to string curse words together. This combination of charm and tenacity is, in many ways, how he has managed to maintain his power for so long.

When the General Assembly convenes January 9 for its 433rd session, Miller will once again climb the stairs to the rostrum in the Maryland Senate Chamber. Since 1987, he has presided over the state senate, building a reputation in Maryland history as a political power player with a fierce understanding of the mechanics of governing. Not only is Miller the longest-serving Senate President in state history, he is, by many accounts, the longest-serving Senate President in the nation. He’s served alongside four governors and three Speakers of the House. O’Malley, for example, was five days shy of his eighth birthday when the now 70-year-old Miller first became a member of the House of Delegates in 1971.

Typically dressed in a dark suit with a crisp white dress shirt and matching white pocket square, Miller still has a full mane of wavy white hair. In many ways, his appearance and style resembles the elder statesmen of previous generations, whose portraits adorn the walls of the Senate chamber.

“I enjoy what I do. I’m honored to be there,” Miller says, speaking after Election Day this past November. “To me it’s not a job, it’s a privilege.” And to observe him in the Senate is to see a man in his element. Standing at the front of the red-carpeted chamber, he runs the body fluidly, knowing the Senate’s parliamentarian procedure like the back of his hand. There’s a liveliness in his step one only sees in a person who truly loves what they do. Occasionally, he’ll tap out a tune with his gavel as he brings the Senate to order and share stories about his years in Annapolis. One day last session, he pointed to the cup holders built into the desks on the Senate floor, noting that when he first came to the Senate in 1975 they were for ashtrays rather than cups.

“He knows how to do this in his sleep basically,” says Barbara Hoffman, a former Democratic senator for Baltimore City and County, now working as a lobbyist. “Like most human beings, he’s a bundle of contradictions. In some ways he’s just a good ol’ boy, a Southern Maryland good ol’ boy.”

And while the unflattering fallout from the budget fiasco raised questions that perhaps he’s been there too long, Miller’s grip on power has not waned since last summer’s special sessions. He faces no viable challenge for his leadership post, and, indeed, he has become an institution in his own right—the expansive and posh Senate office building, after all, is named after him.

“In the scheme of things, he isn’t trying to hurt you or get something for himself. He’s trying to make government run,” says Hoffman, who served in the Senate from 1983 to 2003. “I think what happened last year was probably a huge embarrassment to him.”

Miller has butted heads with many in Annapolis, including members of his own party. He has had turbulent relationships with O’Malley and Busch. During the budget stalemate on the last day of session, Miller told reporters that if O’Malley wanted to move the state forward, he should “roll up his sleeves and get to work just like the rest of us.” He and Busch, who is the longest-serving Speaker in Maryland history, presiding over his chamber for nearly a decade, possess starkly different styles.

“Busch is always on message, but he seems to actually enjoy the company of reporters,” says Len Lazarick, publisher of MarylandReporter.com, who began covering the state capital in 1976. “Miller uses reporters to communicate his message to his adversaries, to communicate with the governor, to reinforce things he tells Busch and O’Malley. He can be very friendly, but I don’t think he particularly likes reporters.”

Former House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat who has known Miller for 28 years, explains the differences between the Senate President and Speaker of the House another way.

“Michael Busch is a teacher and a coach. That’s literally what he did, and he still coaches his daughter’s lacrosse team,” Poole says. “He likes to get involved in the minutiae, the details of things like insurance legislation. Mike Miller is a sea captain. He makes his appearances sparingly. But at the end of the day, he decides what he wants and he cracks the whip. I would also say he has a remarkable ability to withstand criticism. He hears it, but it doesn’t affect him—he has some thick skin.”

The differences in substance and style make for contentious battles. Being in the same room when Miller and Busch are on different sides of an issue, Poole says, “is like watching two grizzled retrievers fighting over the same bone.” Miller, he adds, “can be your best friend in a political fight or he can be your worst enemy.

“Trust me, I’ve had him as both.”

In many ways, Miller remains a Democrat from a different era. Although some may disagree with his strong-armed approach, few doubt his commitment to service. In an age of plastic politicians, he’s a throwback in the instant-news and Twitter age.

“He is the guardian of the tradition of the Senate,” says Montgomery Senator Richard Madaleno, who first came to Annapolis as a budget analyst in 1989 and describes Miller as the “pillar” of the Maryland Democratic Party. “He knows how to bring people together to form a majority to get an issue done, whether that’s through humor, through discussion, or through yelling.”

Miller also possesses a set of principles and beliefs that have become less conservative over time, but by no means mirror a political party that has become increasingly progressive. Perhaps nowhere was that contrast more apparent than the debate over same-sex marriage that dominated headlines over the last two sessions. And unlike the gambling legislation, it proved a rare example of the limitations of Miller’s power.

Despite overwhelming support from his party, including O’Malley and House Speaker Busch, Miller, who is Catholic, did not vote for same-sex marriage legislation. However, he relented to his party’s push for the measure, as well as the tide of history, and did not attempt to kill the bill, or even slow it down by rearranging committees.

“Am I on the wrong side of history?” he mused. “As a historian, there is no doubt about it. At the same time, I understand that, and I’ll deal with that in my own mind.” Blocking the legislation, however, he says, “would have been very undemocratic.”

Opponents petitioned same-sex marriage to referendum, where Maryland voters approved the right of same-sex couples to marry 52 percent to 48 percent. “When I said that [about being on the wrong side of history],” Miller says, post-election, in his thick southern Maryland twang, “I was thinking what my great-grandchildren are gonna think.” He adds that he still believes traditional families are the “backbone of society.”

Married for 47 years and with a successful law practice, Miller credits his long and unprecedented grip on power to his childhood. He was the oldest of 10 children and grew up in Clinton. His family’s store, BK Miller Meat and Liquors, has served Clinton for 100 years. Young Mike began working there when he was 10. “It’s cooperation,” he says about growing up in a big family. “It’s trying to get along and adjusting to the temperament of your siblings.” He says that the desire to excel is a trait he has passed down to his five children and 14 grandchildren.

A voracious reader with ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War, Miller’s passion for history continues to this day. Speaking in November, he said he was reading three nonfiction books at once. In Clinton, his grandfather once owned the home of Mary Surratt, one of the Lincoln-assassination conspirators. As a child, Miller would often talk about history as he ate lunch with his great aunt at the Surratt house.

Yet, it’s difficult to pin down what exactly Miller’s legacy will be when he does leave office. Other than gambling, there are few high-profile pieces of progressive legislation regularly equated with Miller. When asked, he says it will be Maryland’s record on education and the environment. He also mentions reform of divorce laws done before he was Senate President. But his legacy, it appears, will be broader than that.

“I think his legacy is to be a model for caring about the institution of the Senate more than any one thing,” says Hoffman, adding, “I don’t see him leaving though. I don’t know what he would do with himself.” His love of history will no doubt be a factor, as he has played a key role in the restoration of the old chambers of the Senate and House of Delegates in the more than 240-year-old State House.

“It’s hard to imagine that there will be another person in our lifetime like Senator Miller,” says Senator Madaleno. “He’s a remarkable person. It would be fascinating to take a class with him as a professor.”

In 2006, Miller briefly indicated he might not run for another term, leading some senators, including Montgomery County’s Brian Frosh, to maneuver for the Senate presidency. But he eventually changed his mind and won reelection in 2010. Now that the old lion is showing no signs of giving up his post, Frosh, who has indicated a run for Attorney General, and others are making different plans.

Miller says he will run for reelection in 2014. Voters in District 27 will undoubtedly send him back to Annapolis for what will be his 11th term in the Senate. Although it will ultimately be up to his colleagues to reelect him as Senate president.

“The body will have to decide on me as president of the Senate, but in terms of my district I couldn’t ask for a better district,” says Miller. “I mean, it’s where I grew up. My whole life has been southern Maryland.

“I come from a family of workers,” he adds. “I’ve always had two jobs. My father died in the saddle in terms of working and my grandfather did, too.”

For Miller, it is a legacy he appears ready to continue.

Originally published by Baltimore magazine.

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