Thomas V. Mike Miller’s announcement Thursday that he is relinquishing his post as Senate president is an historic moment to be sure. The 76-year-old has presided over his chamber like a lion managing his pride, outlasting, out-maneuvering, out-working all challengers session after session, governor after governor. Naturally, it had to take as fierce an enemy as cancer to unseat him from a throne he has occupied for an extraordinary 32 years. Whether ally or political enemy, no one should have ever doubted the man’s ability to influence events in this state, whether it’s the legalization of slot machines or adding a casino to Prince George’s County or reining in the Democratic Party’s most progressive instincts in favor of Miller brand Southern Maryland centrism. And more about all of that in a moment.
But first there’s the matter of his successor, Baltimore’s own Bill Ferguson. To suggest that Charm City has suddenly received a major gift of good political fortune is an understatement on par with observing that Baltimore steamed crabs taste pretty good. At a time when this city is looking for help from the General Assembly, most particularly in the form of aid to struggling schools promised by the Kirwan Commission, who should be in a key position to deliver on that but a city lawmaker who once taught in one of Baltimore’s most challenged high schools. Senator Ferguson may have a somewhat youthful appearance (he’s all of 36 years old, which means his predecessor served his first two terms in the state Senate before he was even born), but he is smart, savvy and ready to do battle with Republican Larry Hogan over the Kirwan education reforms that the governor has described as “half-baked.”
Add Senator Ferguson’s surprise victory to the recent ascension of House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, the 64-year-old Baltimore County delegate who took over after the death of Michael Busch earlier this year, and the Baltimore region has an influence in the General Assembly not seen since Baltimore natives Ben Cardin and Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg served as House speaker and Senate president in the 1980s. That is nothing short of amazing given the growth of the D.C. suburbs, and the clout of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. It’s a tribute to Senator Ferguson’s political acumen and, perhaps, to Mr. Miller’s sheer dominance on the Senate stage, which gave little opportunity for a more veteran rival to develop over the years.
Still, it’s hard to believe Senator Miller will not continue to have significant influence in major decisions at the committee level and the floor if only through force of personality, not to mention a legacy so celebrated they named the Senate office building after him — two decades ago. Maryland school children will read about him for generations to come. Thank goodness they won’t hear it in the original, somewhat salty, language that Mr. Miller is known to use behind closed doors. Yes, he can be coarse (having once called Baltimore a “goddamn ghetto” in front of a TV reporter). And yes, he can be hot-tempered (having exhorted his fellow Democrats during the Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. era to bury the Republican Party “six feet deep, with faces up”), but let no one underestimate his ability to form a coalition, work the intricacies of the legislative process, raise campaign funds for his supporters and govern a chamber that is inherently the more challenging to lead, given the power vested in individual senators compared to delegates.
Mike Miller is old school, absolutely. Bill Ferguson is certain to be different in both style and agenda. Will his election to the podium signal a serious push to more progressive policies — one that Mr. Miller long resisted for fear of losing swing seats outside his party’s urban strongholds? Has Governor Hogan lost his key deal-maker in the legislature? We won’t be so quick to make those assumptions. It’s one thing to inherit a throne from this lion in winter, it’s quite another to ignore what he has wrought.