The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

His top lieutenants lost their jobs. So Senate President Mike Miller dug in.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The country’s longest-serving Senate president is facing an upheaval, one that could topple politicians less savvy and less dominating than Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

But this is Miller, and Miller always endures.

The surging progressive wing of the Maryland Democratic Party defeated most of his lieutenants in the June primary and nominated gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, a former NAACP president whose liberal agenda threatens to drive a wedge through Miller’s carefully calibrated chamber.

The number of left-leaning groups targeting Miller (D-Calvert) as the key obstacle on issues such as a $15 minimum wage and sanctuary protections for immigrants is growing. And the primary wins by progressive insurgents, as well as spirited challenges from Republicans, all but guarantee a more polarized General Assembly come January.

Yet political insiders say Miller’s perch atop the chamber he has led since Ronald Reagan was president is secure. His tenure offers a master class in diplomacy, adaptation and the cultivation of political power.

A conservative Democrat by Maryland standards, Miller has spent the summer crafting a new leadership team and reaching out to those who vanquished his political allies, preparing to move the chamber to the left on key issues and readjusting his grasp on the state’s levers of influence.

On Thursday, he joined other state lawmakers in endorsing Jealous, although he barely mentioned the nominee in his brief remarks.

“It goes without saying that he’s a political genius,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who served nine years in the state Senate. “He has been open to a lot of the dramatic political changes of our time, even when it cuts against every fiber of his political upbringing.”

Mellowing over time

Miller, 75, knows when the world is shifting around him and how to get in front of it, according to interviews with more than 20 people who have worked with and against him over the years. He is an avid student of history, simultaneously reading as many as four biographies, and believes there’s nothing that happens in politics that hasn’t happened somewhere, sometime before.

“You know, if there’s a better person that the [Senate] feels could do the job, I understand that completely,” Miller said in an interview. “I understand what motivates people.”

The Prince George’s County native survived one coup attempt, back in 2000. Insiders say he builds power by fostering the illusion that he is an autocratic ruler.

In reality, Miller courts loyalty by treating other senators like family, investing in their political races, researching their districts and learning the details of their personal lives. He says he applies the customer-service ethic ingrained in him when he worked at his family’s community liquor and general store as a teenager, hustling to fill orders for feed bags, groceries and beer.

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) was a young delegate with a controversial environmental bill when he first met Miller nearly 30 years ago.

Frosh needed Miller, who already was presiding over the Senate, to assign it to a certain committee for it to have a chance to pass.

Miller immediately agreed to meet with him, praised the bill and Frosh’s vision, and said he had no choice but to send it to a different committee that was certain to bury it without a vote.

“I walk out of his office, I know there’s a knife sticking out of my back,” said Frosh, who later spent 20 years in Miller’s chamber. “And I’m thinking, ‘I know he just killed my bill, but what a nice guy!’ ”

By any measure, Miller, a practicing Catholic, is more conservative than the mainstream Democratic caucus. He voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012 but nonetheless paved the way for the law to pass, saying he understood his personal views were “on the wrong side of history.”

“He knows what’s necessary to keep the Democrats in the majority and keep the Democratic caucus together,” Frosh said. “There’s been all kinds of progressive legislation, and it’s not because Miller has fought it and lost. He’s helped it go through.”

Miller maneuvered in 2015 to deliver on newly elected Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign promise to repeal the “rain tax,” knowing tht Hogan’s upset victory was built on voter anger at tax and fee hikes. And as progressives began to gain power, Miller ensured passage of a paid-sick-leave bill they supported in 2017.

But he stood in the way of full repeal of the death penalty for years before letting it go through in 2012. Last year, as President Trump’s rhetoric heightened tension in immigrant communities, Miller helped torpedo a House-approved bill to protect noncitizens from overpolicing.

He has angered Hogan by encouraging the Senate Executive Nominations Committee to upend the nominations of some top appointees.

Miller is far more willing to compromise now than he was 25 years ago, when he was known for pushing a meddling lobbyist up against a wall and sending a Christmas card to a fellow senator that said he had not forgotten that she voted against him months earlier.

In 2000, slighted Democrats and Republicans attempted to oust Miller in a coup led by then-Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County). It was sparked — in Bromwell’s telling — by outrage at Miller’s meddling in local politics and quelled by Democrats with allegiance to the boss.

Miller has twice persuaded his colleagues to redraw his Southern Maryland district to accumulate more power. The second time, in 2002, the boundaries spanned four counties, with enough white residents to help him get reelected but enough African Americans to withstand a GOP challenger.

The state’s top court threw it out as unconstitutional.

At the same time, Miller faced three separate ethics inquiries for calling judges and “yelling” at them while the redistricting plan was under judicial review. He was ultimately scolded by state prosecutors, the General Assembly’s ethics committee and the Attorney Grievance Commission but faced no other sanctions.

He promised to retaliate against the GOP lawmakers pushing for the ethics probes, saying at the time, “I’m not going to forget it. . . . I’m not going to forgive.”

'Take a Hike Mike'

Progressive activists and other political leaders whose initiatives have withered in the Senate in recent years see little benevolence in Miller’s leadership and have grown impatient with his dominance.

Republicans are targeting seven seats in traditionally conservative Democratic districts in hopes of busting Miller’s supermajority this fall so Democrats cannot override gubernatorial vetoes.

One chapter of the influential Service Employees International Union formed a political action committee and launched a “Take a Hike Mike” campaign aimed at ousting Miller and diluting his influence by defeating his leadership team. Helping their effort was fellow Democrat and state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a longtime Miller adversary who openly accuses him of orchestrating backroom deals.

This spring, Franchot went door to door in Miller’s district in Prince George’s and Calvert counties to campaign with his Democratic primary opponent, political newcomer Tommi Makila.

Makila centered his campaign on Miller’s almost-unheard-of longevity, telling voters that after nearly a half-century, it was time for him to go.

Miller won the primary by 40 percentage points.

“Makila is a nice guy. He’s been president of the PTA at Accokeek Academy,” the Senate president said during the campaign. “I built that school.”

Progressive activists now say they never expected to actually defeat Miller, whose name has graced the $25 million Miller Office Building housing senators in Annapolis since 2001. But they say he is weakened because four of his top five lieutenants lost their seats in primaries or retired — some after being targeted by “Take a Hike Mike” — and the Democrats nominated to replace them are further to the left.

Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said Miller was slow to push for a new sexual harassment policy in the wake of the Me Too movement, waiting to act until after women’s complaints about the atmosphere in Annapolis made headlines.

He also said Miller misread the political climate when he defended the statue of Roger B. Taney, Confederate-era author of the Dred Scott decision, on the State House grounds. Miller later apologized, saying he preferred learning about the state’s “flawed history” to removing it from view.

SEIU Local 500 political director Mark McLaurin said his group, which backed Jealous in the Democratic primary, has “planted a flag in the ground in terms of being an anti-Miller kind of voice. . . . We put Mike Miller as the topic of the conversation within the caucus.”

Although many Miller critics are reluctant to air their grievances in public, some of his longtime opponents have become more brazen in characterizing him as a relic of the past.

Last month, during a meeting of the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee, teachers union President Theresa Dudley plunked a chain on the table and said that county officials, who are largely African American, are controlled by “the master who lives in Calvert County.”

Dudley said Miller rules with an iron fist, making clear whom he wants to run for office or sit on key committees, and freezing out others, even if they have grass-roots support.

“It’s the money,” Dudley said, referring to Miller’s willingness to dole out campaign contributions from his hefty war chest and fundraise for others. “If Mike Miller doesn’t want it done, all he’s got to do is tell all the other senators he doesn’t want it done. They won’t question it.”

Miller, clearly upset about being likened to a slave owner, said he does not intervene in politics the way people assume he does. He declined to directly address the racially charged accusation.

“It’s like when somebody asks you, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ ” Miller said. “You know: When you’re denying, you’re losing.”

Three-dimensional chess

Before his detractors could celebrate the possible chink in his armor caused by the June 26 primary, Miller began to rebuild — learning the names of the children of the new Senate nominees, congratulating them on their wins and inviting them to visit his State House office. “I’m like the curator of a museum,” Miller said. “You welcome the new ideas. You welcome the new energy.”

Or as his former chief of staff, lobbyist Joe Bryce, puts it: Miller is playing three-dimensional chess and is six moves ahead of everyone else.

One of the first meetings was with Del. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), an SEIU-backed first-term lawmaker who ousted Senate President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Miller colleague and friend for more than two decades.

After learning that Lyndon B. Johnson was McCray’s favorite president, Miller decided to send him a copy of “Mutual Contempt,” a book about the feud between Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy. McCray, who campaigned on the theme of needing new blood in the Senate and has no opponent in the general election, left Miller’s office with hope that some of the progressive policies that he campaigned on — including a $15 minimum wage — would finally get a vote.

Miller also talked about embracing change during his welcome meeting with Del. Mary L. Washington (D-Baltimore City), who in the primary edged out longtime state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

“He is not a dinosaur,” Washington said. “The thing about dinosaurs is that they don’t adapt.”

And Miller reached out to political newcomer Arthur Ellis, who narrowly upset Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a long-rumored successor to Miller. Ellis said the two “bonded” over their shared love of history and their alma mater, the University of Maryland.

“He knows how to build new friendships and form new alliances,” Ellis said.

In anticipation of being elected Senate president for a 32nd consecutive year, Miller has appointed a new fleet of committee chairs and vice chairs to serve starting in January, careful to seek gender and racial balance.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) said Miller treats all senators as though they occupy a special place in society. This year, he made sure the newly appointed widow of Sen. Wayne Norman, Sen. Linda Norman (R-Harford County), was given a bill to defend during her second week in the chamber.

“He might hate you. He might fight you politically,” Jennings said. “But when it comes to being a senator, he treats you with respect.”

In some ways, Jennings said, the upheaval in the Senate could solidify Miller’s tenure. Not only has he created a new generation of loyalty among his incoming leadership team, but with a more polarized Senate likely to emerge, there’s also no other consensus candidate — and no one else the Republican caucus would be likely to support.

“For us, who is going to be more moderate than Mike Miller right now?” Jennings asked. “Nobody.”

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