Longtime Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who is battling cancer, is likely to announce his future political plans Thursday — potentially kicking off a succession scramble for one of the most powerful positions in the state.
Miller, 76, has been in treatment for metastatic prostate cancer for more than a year, an illness that has caused him back pain and resulted in difficulty walking.
The Senate’s 32 Democrats plan to hold a closed-door caucus Thursday morning, and many believe Miller will discuss his next moves at that meeting.
Miller has a news conference scheduled for noon Thursday. He could announce that he’s staying on as president, resigning from office altogether or stepping down as Senate president but staying on as a senator representing parts of Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties.
“He’s torn. It’s a difficult decision,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat.
In the role for 32 years, Miller has helped shaped the direction of the state by what he has supported — and what he’s chosen not to oppose. During his tenure, Maryland has made significant progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, legalized casinos, ended the death penalty and passed some of the nation’s strongest gun laws. The General Assembly voted in 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage. While he didn’t support the bill, Miller allowed it to come to the floor and worked to ensure that a filibuster that would threaten the legislation could be cut off, if needed.
Going forward, the Senate president will have a significant impact on a planned massive expansion of education funding and must continue to engage successfully with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan on the priorities of the Democratic-controlled legislature.
A handful of senators have quietly tested the waters of running for Senate president, including Pinsky and Douglas J.J. Peters of Prince George’s, Guy Guzzone of Howard County and Nancy King of Montgomery County.
In recent weeks, Sen. Bill Ferguson of Baltimore has emerged as a leading candidate in the preliminary, behind-the-scenes campaigning.
Ferguson and King did not respond to requests for comment.
“Since the summer, there’s been a campaign on the condition that I would be interested only if Mike steps down," Pinsky said. “A number of people have been having conversations for months, and I’m one of those people. I have been talking to people all over the state.”
Said Guzzone of Miller: “He’s the president. I support the president. Until I hear that he’s not intending to be the president, there’s nothing really to say.”
Sen. Pamela Beidle, who represents Anne Arundel County, said Guzzone told her Tuesday he’d teamed up with Ferguson and encouraged her to support the Baltimore legislator. She said she was likely to do so.
“I don’t know for sure that the Senate president is going to step down. Out of respect for him, we need to hear what his decision is,” Beidle said.
She added that she didn’t believe the caucus would vote on a successor Thursday, but would instead act at a later date.
Of Ferguson, Beidle said, “He’s smart and articulate. We have really good choices. They’re all really good candidates."
Peters said he hopes Miller’s health news Thursday is positive.
“As far as I know, President Miller is running for reelection and as long as that’s the case, I stand strongly behind him,” Peters said.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, who as Democratic Caucus chairman will lead Thursday’s meeting, declined to speculate on what will happen.
“I believe Mike Miller is the virtually unanimous choice for Senate president,” said Rosapepe, a Prince George’s Democrat.
Of the potential successors, Peters is considered the most conservative. He has voted against same-sex marriage and for restrictions on government funding of abortion. Ferguson and Pinsky are considered more liberal. Both have sparred with Hogan over the need for more funding for Maryland’s public schools.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he hopes Miller will stay on. Zirkin said he admires Miller for powering through his illness and treatments to continue to lead the Senate.
“Last year, while he was battling this, he was amazing,” said Zirkin, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it. He was clearly in tons of pain and he sat there and led the chamber.”
Zirkin said he’ll only think about who should succeed Miller if and when Miller announces he’s stepping down. “And even after that, I’ll try to convince him to stay," he said.
Senators interested in succeeding Miller have been calling Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, also a Baltimore County Democrat, seeking her support. She holds the position of president pro tem and fills in for Miller when he is absent, making her endorsement as a Senate leader valuable.
“I’ve been feeling really popular," said Klausmeier, who said she’s not interested in the post herself.
Sen. Ron Young, a Frederick County Democrat, expects the picture will clear Thursday once everyone knows Miller’s intentions.
“Everybody would like to have a plan laid out, whether it’s dealt with now or three months from now or a year from now,” he said.
Young said he’s spoken with most of the potential candidates to succeed Miller but wouldn’t say whom he would support. He thinks the candidates might come to a consensus among themselves, avoiding a contested election.
“I like them all,” Young said. “I know that they’re talking to each other and they may be able to work it out themselves. I’m waiting to see what happens there.”
Acrimony this spring marked a succession battle in the House of Delegates following the unexpected death of longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Busch was hospitalized with pneumonia near the end of this year’s regular, 90-day General Assembly session and died on the second-to-last day of the session.
When it came time for a closed-door vote among Democrats to choose Busch’s successor, neither of the front-runners, Maggie McIntosh and Dereck Davis, could muster the full support of the caucus. Davis had secured support from Republicans to get enough votes in the full House, but Democrats cautioned against allowing a speaker to gain power by relying on Republican votes. Eventually, McIntosh, the leading choice of most Democrats, and Davis stepped back and put forth Jones as a compromise candidate.
The speaker election also roiled the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, which endorsed Davis. Leaders of the black caucus warned members against supporting McIntosh, who is white.
The Senate president presides over floor sessions of the chamber, guiding legislation through the process, overseeing debate and calling final votes. The president also appoints senators to committees and leadership posts, and holds sway over which legislation gets serious consideration and which doesn’t.
Miller has taken pride in encouraging open debate with diverse voices — even if the conservatives in the minority rarely win the day. He often commends senators for the quality of their debates. He’s earned respect from members and leaders of both parties, despite political differences.
Miller has held the role of Senate president since 1987, before all of the other current senators came into office and before one of them was even born.
He’s been a state senator since 1975.
“Mike Miller always put the institution and the senators first,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat. “It’s important that whoever replaces Mike Miller understands it’s about the institution, not personal ambition." Carter said it was also “critically important” that the next Senate president recognize the importance of Baltimore and its need for resources, as Miller has.