Their departures leave the General Assembly in uncharted waters: Dating to the 1700s, only a handful of presiding officers led either legislative branch for more than a few years.
Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) is now at the helm of the House. On Thursday, the Democrats who control the Senate voted to back Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) as their next president.
Liberals are optimistic that their agenda could be fast-tracked. Education reformers feel empowered. And for the first time in a generation, neither leader is from the Washington suburbs. They must define themselves — and the legislature’s relationship with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — in the shadow of “The Mikes.”
“The politics of the chambers have grown more fluid and ‘small d’ democratic,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who served in the General Assembly for nearly a decade before being elected to Congress in 2016. “It’s an indescribably watershed moment.”
Transfer of power
Jones made history as the first woman and the first person of color to control a Maryland legislative chamber. She has mostly kept Busch’s leadership structure intact. But she has floated rescinding corporate tax credits to help pay for a public education overhaul and used her power to elevate the plight of men wrongly convicted and a long-standing lawsuit over inequitable resources for historically black colleges.
The more seismic shift, however, could involve Ferguson, 36, the Senate’s second-youngest member, whom other Democrats described as quiet, collaborative and passionate about policies embraced by the party’s left flank.
“Bill Ferguson may be the closest to the opposite of Mike Miller as you can find in personality and temperament,” Raskin said. “He is subdued, pensive and thoughtful and unfailingly sweet to those he deals with. Mike Miller is this dynamic, charismatic and sometimes volcanic, larger-than-life character out of the pages of a book on the history of old Maryland. Bill Ferguson did Teach for America. Mike Miller invented the national organization to raise money for state legislators.”
Rushern L. Baker III (D), a former Prince George’s County executive and member of the General Assembly, said that Miller and Busch were “people who could say ‘This is going to happen,’ and they could make it happen — especially Miller. They were more powerful than most governors.”
Under Jones and Ferguson, he predicted, rank-and-file members “will have more of a say in what will happen. . . . It won’t be so much top down.”
Through their representatives, Ferguson and Jones declined to comment for this report.
But Ferguson has signaled that he could flatten the power structure.
“There is no one who can replace Mike Miller,” he said in brief remarks after the Democratic caucus vote. “The only way that we will move forward is if we maximize the skills and talents of each of the 47 members of the Maryland Senate.”
A left-leaning opportunity
The Senate traditionally has been the more conservative of the two chambers, which each hold veto-proof Democratic majorities. Recent elections ushered in a crop of younger and more liberal lawmakers. But under Miller and Busch, those new rank-and-file members have not exerted significant influence.
“So much of the work happens in committee,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. “When you start to see those committee chairs be progressive, that’s when you’ll see transformational change,” she said.
Some liberal lawmakers are confident that change is on the way. Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) said she thinks “cutting-edge legislation” will “get a more favorable hearing and better chances at passage in a Ferguson-led Senate.”
She pointed to the country’s first statewide ban on foam containers, enacted this summer: “That took three years, and Mike finally said yes, and we were able to get it passed.”
Looking forward, Kagan said she hopes the Senate will fast-track her bill to require all single-stall bathrooms in the state to be designated gender-neutral, a shift she said would aid people with disabilities and the transgender community.
“I suspect that Bill Ferguson would find that a no-brainer, and that Mike Miller would find that something that he would have to wrestle with,” Kagan said.
Caryn York, executive director of Job Opportunities Task Force, an advocacy group for low-wage workers, said she’s hopeful but not confident about what lies ahead: “I have been around long enough to know not to get too excited when seats change just because seats change.”
Larry Stafford, is the executive director of Progressive Maryland, an organization that campaigned unsuccessfully to defeat Miller in 2018 and had a hand in defeating some of Miller’s top lieutenants that year.
“It’s going to take some time,” he said. “But there are more possibilities for the progressive movement.”
Preparing for battle
Both Jones and Ferguson are building relationships with Hogan virtually from scratch.
“There’s going to be a feeling-out period,” said Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist and former top Hogan staffer. “Mike Busch and Mike Miller had known the governor for decades by the time he was elected. While they all fought like hell in public, they also knew when it was time to go behind closed doors and have a drink and make a compromise.”
Those relationships will develop as Democrats ready for an enormous political fight over how to upgrade Maryland’s public education system. Next year, the General Assembly will debate whether to enact a $4 billion plan that Ferguson — a former teacher who has spent a career working on education reform — was central in crafting, and that Hogan has derided as “pie in the sky.”
Ferguson’s policy expertise, and his tendency to frame of the issue in terms of moral imperatives, has made him a favorite with education reform advocates, who reportedly cheered each time his name was mentioned at a community forum last week.
“Are children today able to maximize their God-given potential based on the quality of Maryland public schools?” Ferguson asked at a recent public event. “The answer to that today, despite a lot of our great efforts, is no.”
Citing data that suggest fewer than 40 percent of state high school graduates are ready for jobs or college, he added: “That is unconscionable — unconscionable — in the richest state in the richest country in the world.”
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, said Miller sometimes throttled more liberal-leaning tax policies that could make it through a Ferguson-led Senate to help pay for the education reforms.
“A higher income tax on the wealthy — or those viewed as wealthy — is more likely to be on the table,” Eberly said.
Many of Annapolis’s top-flight lobbying firms are led by former Miller staffers who watched up close as he cultivated influence and operated a sprawling Democratic machine. Now, they must adjust to new leaders whose style, top lobbyist Gerard E. Evans said, “will be much more participatory.”
“Not that Mike and Mike didn’t do that, but they had a key core and everybody else went along,” Evans said. “Now you see young people saying: ‘I’ve got a voice, too. What am I, chopped liver?’ ”
Ferguson’s nomination shifted influence from the Washington suburbs, where Miller lived and grew up, to the Baltimore area, which depends heavily on state assistance for everything from schooling to policing to transportation.
“A Baltimore boy ascending to be Senate president is a good thing for us, obviously,” said Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City), chairman of the city’s Senate delegation. “It will put our priorities on the table in a meaningful way.”
Timothy Maloney, a former Prince George’s County lawmaker who remains a confidant of many top politicians, including Hogan and Miller, said, “The big loser in the last year has been the Washington region in general and Prince George’s in particular.”
Senior Democrats from Prince George’s jockeyed to succeed Miller and Busch — Del. Dereck E. Davis and Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters were each runners-up in their respective caucuses.
But they could not garner enough support to win.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow that we did not capture either chamber,” said Del. Michael A. Jackson (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the county’s House delegation. “We have to work with our colleagues to make sure our region, the Washington capital region, gets the resources it needs.”