When Thomas V. Mike Miller joined the Maryland Senate 45 years ago, he took a seat in the last row.
He worked his way up the power structure and to the front of the chamber, serving as president for more than three decades. On Wednesday, Miller returned to a desk near the rear of the room.
“I’m back where I started,” Miller said. “And I’m privileged and honored to be there.”
Miller passed the torch of leadership to a new generation as the General Assembly convened its 441st session, nominating 36-year-old Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore to succeed him as president.
Across the hall, the House of Delegates marked a changing of the guard, as well. Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, convened her first session after being elected to succeed Michael E. Busch, who died last spring.
In the Senate, Miller piled compliments on his successor, saying Ferguson has demonstrated leadership, determination, responsibility, integrity, vision and enthusiasm.
Senators honored Miller with multiple standing ovations, but the moment was bittersweet.
Respected by Democratic and Republican senators alike, Miller faced no political challenge to his leadership. In his time as president, his hair turned from red to white and 129 senators have come and gone. Until Wednesday, no current senator had ever served under another Senate president.
But as cancer spread from his prostate to his bones and treatments sapped his energy, Miller decided to take a step back. Now, he’s one among 47, a Democratic lawmaker representing voters in southern Maryland and sitting on a committee that reviews the state budget.
Miller’s colleagues created the position of president emeritus and bestowed the title on him in a unanimous vote — though Miller acknowledged later he’s not sure what that position will entail.
In one of his final actions before stepping down, Miller administered the oath of office Wednesday to new Sen. Charles Sydnor, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore County and Baltimore City. After the oath, Sydnor posed for photos with Miller and Ferguson.
“Has anyone seen ‘The Two Popes’ yet? It’s on Netflix,” Miller said. “You’ve got the old pope and the new pope. And the old pope isn’t supposed to say anything. That’s me.”
The seat in the back of the chamber is part of Miller’s effort to let Ferguson shine. Miller said he picked it himself.
“I’m going to be working with him, not as an equal partner, but as a senator to make his tenure a success,” Miller said in an interview. “If they see me in the back of the room, then they’ll look to him first, rather than myself.”
Ferguson, standing in his freshly painted office, said he’s adjusting to the role. In addition to leading the Senate’s daily sessions, guiding debate and calling for votes, the president chooses the body’s leaders and shapes the agenda for which bills get serious consideration.
“I’m glad the first day, we’re through it now,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “It’s time to do what we are all here to do, and that’s the people’s business.”
In the House, Jones accepted the position of speaker in a unanimous vote. She was first selected for the position during a brief, one-day session in May, a surprise winner of a contentious race to succeed Busch. Wednesday was the first time she led from the rostrum as speaker with a full agenda.
During a brief speech, Jones choked up when recalling Busch.
“I assume this position with a clear vision of the way forward, but also with a heavy heart,” Jones said. “Too soon, we lost a giant in Maryland government, an ultimate public servant and an honorable man in Michael Erin Busch.”
She recognized Busch’s family, which has attended opening day at the State House for 17 years.
“I worked with Mike for 16 years and, together with many of you, we built the foundation on which we stand,” said Jones, her voice cracking.
Jones noted changes she made for the session, including renovating a women’s restroom and opening a unisex restroom near the House floor for delegates. Also, video of a third of the House floor sessions will be streamed live on the internet this year.
Both chambers feature new seconds-in-command, both of them black women.
Delegates voted unanimously for Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, an Eastern Shore Democrat, as speaker pro tem. Sample-Hughes, the only African American delegate from the shore, thanked Jones for picking her.
“You are taking the integrity of this institution to higher heights. I am ever so grateful for your trust in me to work alongside you,” she said.
Senators voted unanimously for Sen. Melony Griffith, a Prince George’s County Democrat, as Senate president pro tem. She won praise last year for tackling — and explaining to her colleagues — a complicated bill dealing with prescription drug coverage for retired state employees.
Amid the pomp and ceremony of the day, lawmakers conducted a modest amount of business, introducing a handful of bills.
Both chambers put off holding votes to override vetoes from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, including bills that prohibit employers from asking job applicants upfront about any criminal history, dissolve the Handgun Permit Review Board and establish no-harvest oyster sanctuaries.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Video of the House of Delegates session was, for the first time, broadcast on the General Assembly’s website.
For years, only audio of House and Senate sessions were broadcast, which was difficult for some listeners to follow because lawmakers are not referred to by their name. The video feed featured multiple cameras showing various angles of the chamber, with each lawmaker’s name and district appearing on screen as they spoke.
The Senate plans to follow with its own video streaming next year.
In a morning forum, Jones said she expected delegates would ask tough questions about Hogan’s real estate company. Some lawmakers are taking a renewed look at the governor’s relationship with the firm after a report by Washington Monthly magazine this week revived questions about whether Annapolis-based Hogan Cos. benefits from state highway projects.
After becoming governor in 2015, Hogan stepped aside from the company and his business affairs are handled by a trust under an arrangement approved by the State Ethics Commission. He is allowed to receive some information on his company’s finances and dealings, and has continued to earn income from the business and investments.
Hogan has defended his business dealings as aboveboard and said Wednesday he has followed the state’s ethics laws and instructions from the commission.
"We are completely transparent and every single thing that I have any interest in, we turn it over to the ethics commission, which is available to the public,” he said.