After four rough-and-tumble years of divided government, many Democrats in the General Assembly hoped that the election of one of their party as governor would lead to a new era of calm. But no sooner had the votes been cast than Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller let slip that this term will be his last, leaving his powerful post up for grabs for the first time since some senators were in high school.
Over the past four years, every move in Annapolis was viewed through the lens of this year's governor's race and the Democrats' attempts to make sure Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s first term would be his last. But with no obvious successor to the Senate presidency, that sport has been replaced by a new intrigue, and even if it doesn't capture the public's attention like a governor's race, it could become just as heated.
"It's going to be a four-year campaign," said former Sen. Paula C. Hollinger.
Why Miller announced his intentions when he did is something of a mystery in Annapolis. Most analysis of what goes on in the Senate is predicated on the Miller infallibility rule - that is, nothing happens in his chamber that he does not intend. But this biggest piece of news about Senate leadership arose out of the blue in a seemingly off-hand remark to a reporter.
Miller said he announced his intentions early as a courtesy to those who would be interested in succeeding him - otherwise, he said, they might not seek re-election or might resign their seats for other jobs, thinking the opportunity would never arise.
"I want to give everybody the opportunity to demonstrate leadership," he said.
The generally accepted front-runners in the race are the three veteran committee chairmen: Sen. Ulysses E. Currie of Prince George's County, Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton of Southern Maryland.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore, who takes over the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in January, will also have a strong perch from which to position herself for the post over the next four years.
Other names that have been suggested by current members of the Senate include Sen. P.J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Republican-turned-Democrat who is vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee; and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat who has been Miller's go-to guy on slot machines, BGE rates and other complex issues.
A dark horse possibility is Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, an attorney and Army veteran from Montgomery County who is well-liked and respected in the chamber but who has served only one term and has not held a leadership post.
"There's been perhaps a quiet campaign previously, but now maybe it will become a little more overt," said Frosh, who openly acknowledges his interest in the job. "But as long as Mike's there, I think there is not going to be flag-waving and fund-raising and whatnot."
None of the potential candidates is openly campaigning, and some of them are evasive when asked about their interest in the job. But which of them, if any, comes away with the prize could say a great deal about the direction of the state Senate for years to come.
The presidency is determined by a vote within the majority party, and all of the potential successors to Miller are fellow Democrats. But they represent different wings of the party.
Middleton, Hogan and Kasemeyer are known as moderate or conservative Democrats, making them philosophically similar to Miller. Frosh has more liberal leanings and is in line with a growing bloc of senators, many of them from the Washington suburbs. Currie and Conway are African-Americans, a crucial constituency for the party.
A new Senate president might do more to demonstrate the leanings of the membership than to change the body's direction, said Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. Miller kept his leadership post for so long largely because he kept himself in tune with the mood of the Senate, Astle said.
"He did it by keeping everybody happy," Astle said. "I haven't really seen the current president driving things. He's been pretty good about letting the membership decide what is on the agenda and what is not. I wouldn't think that's going to change."
Miller said he is concerned about making sure his replacement shares his love of Maryland history and his love of the Senate. But he said he also needs to make sure his successor shares his ability to raise money, recruit candidates and maintain the Democratic majority in the Senate.
"I'm going to be interested in seeing who's going to be supportive of the entire Senate in raising financial resources, in demonstrating that this is a team effort rather than an individual effort," Miller said.
But there could be a limit to how much say Miller has in the matter. He said he intends to serve out his full term - and, if the caucus continues to re-elect him, to stay as president.
If he follows through on that, it means he won't even be able to vote on his successor, much less pull strings to help a protege.
Sen. Norman K. Stone, the longest-serving member of the Senate - and one of the few to serve under anyone but Miller - said those interested in the job should not get ahead of themselves.
Eleven of the 47 members this year are new, and there's no telling how many seats might turn over in 2010 -maybe even some held by the people eyeing Miller's job, Stone said.
"Anything can happen in four years," Stone said. "It would be incredible to build up support and then lose the election."
But in a chamber where the top job has been locked up for so long - Miller was elected Senate president in January 1987 and is the longest-serving Senate president in the United States right now - it will be all but impossible for the ambitious to contain themselves, said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. She, for one, is excited to watch the scramble.
"Now all the chairmen are going to act right," Gladden said. "This might be the most congenial session in the history of the Senate because everyone is going to be so pleasant."
Seven Democratic legislators are considered likely candidates for the Senate presidency when Thomas V. Mike Miller retires after this term.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, Baltimore City, incoming chairwoman, Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee
Sen. Ulysses E. Currie, Prince George's County, chairman, Budget and Taxation Committee
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery county, chairman, Judicial Proceedings Committee
Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery County
Sen. P.J. Hogan, Montgomery County, vice chairman, Budget and Taxation Committee
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, Howard County, deputy majority leader
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Southern Maryland, chairman, Finance Committee