The lawmaker at the microphone asked if there were any more nominees to lead Maryland’s Senate, but he already knew the time-honored answer: No one dared challenge the incumbent, the hulking, white-haired man who now rose from his seat to claim his title, as he has every year for more than a quarter of a century.
“The longest-serving Senate president in the United … States … of … America!” the lawmaker bellowed as nearly four dozen state senators jumped up to cheer Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., their hands slapping his thick shoulders as he strode to the president’s rostrum.
A defining trait of the political universe is that presidents, governors and mayors come and go, along with most legislators, judges and agency heads. Yet Miller, in his 27th year as Maryland’s Senate president and his 44th as a lawmaker, is a gravity-defying fixture, as much a part of Annapolis’s vista, it seems, as the State House dome.
A Democrat accustomed to Democratic governors, Miller, 72, must share power for the next four years with a Republican chief executive, Larry Hogan, who was sworn into office this month urging cooperation and moderation.
Miller has gone out of his way to praise Hogan, whom he’s known for decades and whose seemingly centrist views may be closer to the Senate president’s — at least on some issues — than the liberalism of former governor Martin O’Malley (D).
Yet as fissures emerge over spending cuts proposed in Hogan’s budget, it’s an open question whether Miller’s rendition of political kumbaya is authentic — or the latest ploy by an enduring tactician.
As much as anything, Miller is a partisan pugilist of the highest order, a man who once promised to bury Republicans “six feet deep, faces up.”
Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., recalled that Miller promised bipartisan harmony when he took office in 2003 “ ‘as long as I like what you do.’ ”
But Miller also warned that when the new governor faced reelection, “ ‘I’m going to beat your brains in.’ ”
“And he kept his word,” said Ehrlich, who lost in 2006 to O’Malley.
Miller, when asked about Ehrlich’s account, said, “That’s not what I said.”
His version: “‘In the fourth year, we’ll take out a machine gun.’”
As he settles into Annapolis, Hogan needs help from both Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) to eliminate an $800 million deficit and fulfill campaign promises to ease taxes and make Maryland more business-friendly. Although both chambers vote on the governor’s budget and legislation, Miller’s Senate has the additional leverage of confirming Hogan’s Cabinet appointees.
Although Miller and Busch are equal as chamber leaders, Miller is among a handful of lawmakers who has spent more time in Annapolis than Busch, a delegate for 28 years, including 12 as speaker. And only one of those lawmakers has his name on a government building: the Thomas V. Mike Miller Senate Building.
“He’s so much a part of the State House that he seems to meld right into the marble,” Timothy Maloney, a former state delegate, said of Miller. “You can’t really tell where one ends and the other begins.”
Around Annapolis, Miller is viewed not as a rostrum-thumping ideologue but as a cunning dealmaker, leaving it to his committee chairs to decide which legislation to embrace and which to jettison.
His influence is pervasive. He raises funds for Democrats, anoints candidates and holds sway over a litany of appointments — committee chairs, Cabinet secretaries, judges, even local liquor inspectors.
“There are a lot of IOU’s out there — long-standing IOU’s,” said Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
With a Republican as governor, Democrats say, Miller’s influence over his party should only grow. “He knows how to move the levers of power,” said Mike Morrill, who was an adviser to Gov. Parris Glendening (D). “He plays the levers of power like he’s playing the piano. It’s a concert.”
Sometimes, however, Miller’s message can veer toward the discordant.
As he left Hogan’s first budget briefing, Miller declared the presentation “masterful.” Yet within days, he questioned the crux of Hogan’s plan — a 2 percent reduction in agency spending — and opposed his proposal to slash increases in education spending.
Addressing the Senate on Thursday, Miller said lawmakers will have to express their opposition to the governor “with smiles on our faces, and we’re going to have to disagree in an agreeable fashion.”
“We’re going to understand what he’s doing, but we’re going to reflect what the needs of our population are as well,” he said.
“That’s as bipartisan as I’m going to get.”
As he presides over the Senate, Miller is a commanding figure, his longish mane suggesting a Founding Father if not an actor at a Revolutionary War reenactment.
Gavel in hand, he peppers his procedural directives with the occasional history lesson (four portraits in the chamber are of Marylanders who signed the Declaration of Independence); personal asides (“Excites me no end!” he said of his wife’s order that they spend their 50th anniversary alone at a hotel); and proverbial towel-snapping (“Four years ago, he was waiting tables, and now he’s minority whip!” he said of a Republican who, in fact, was a delegate in 2010).
Miller also knows how to control his chamber, anger governors and punish foes.
“Don’t cross the boss,” said Gloria Lawlah, a former state senator from Prince George’s County who once lost her position as subcommittee chair after pushing for Miller’s ouster. “If you cross him, you better put on your asbestos suit, because you’re going to need it.”
O’Malley had to call two special sessions in 2012 after Miller ended the legislative season without approving tax increases, a lapse that triggered $500 million in cuts. When lawmakers reconvened, Miller got what he wanted: a casino in Prince George’s, a portion of which is in his district.
During O’Malley’s reign, Miller helped enact marriage equality, the repeal of the death penalty and gun restrictions, measures that made Maryland among the nation’s most progressive states. Although Miller’s personal views are more conservative, he understood the electorate’s leftward drift.
“What was Machiavelli’s dictum? The times change, change with the times?” said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery). He describes Miller “as the consummate politician who thrives with the context. He is an architect of consensus.”
Now, as Annapolis’s dynamics shift, Miller is positioned as a mediator between Hogan and a progressive legislature.
“Hogan needs a go-between, a fixer, and that’s what Miller’s role is,” said Matthew Crenson, a retired Johns Hopkins University political science professor. “He’s the legislative handyman, the technician. He’s the man in the middle.”
Although not close friends, Hogan and Miller share decades of history, most of it rooted in overlapping social and political circles in their native Prince George’s. In 1962, when Miller was 18, he worked as a driver for a Republican gubernatorial candidate whose adviser was Hogan’s father, Lawrence Hogan Sr.
When Miller was elected a state delegate in 1970, representing Prince George’s, the elder Hogan was serving in Congress. Hogan became Prince George’s county executive in 1978 after Miller ascended to the state Senate. At that point, Larry Hogan Jr., just out of college, worked as his father’s aide.
A quarter-century later, Ehrlich made the younger Hogan his appointments secretary, overseeing Cabinet hires. Yet Hogan’s “real job,” Ehrlich said, “was to get along with and talk to and lobby and do everything I needed with Mike Miller.” At one point, the governor summoned Hogan to persuade Miller to salvage a charter school bill, one of Ehrlich’s top legislative priorities.
Miller, during an interview, recalled his dealings with Hogan during the Ehrlich years as amicable, even though they sometimes clashed — once over appointees to the Parole Board. “One of us ended up hanging up on the other. I can’t remember who,” Miller said of one highly charged phone call.
“He’s always been a very affable person,” Miller said of Hogan, but he added that “he uses his good humor as far as it goes, and then he has a temper.” The same description, he acknowledged, could also apply to himself.
Working with Ehrlich was difficult, Miller said, because he “didn’t have a strong work ethic” and he flaunted an “ultra-strong, conservative record.”
“Hogan doesn’t have that,” Miller said. “His heels aren’t dug in in the same way.”
Miller, who has publicly considered retirement over the years, won reelection in November. He said he hasn’t decided whether to run again. Describing himself as “very good” at what he does, he added: “I’m able to see what’s going to happen before it happens.”
But he conceded that he — like most of Maryland’s Democratic establishment — was stunned when Hogan defeated then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D).
“Nobody saw it,” Miller said.
Miller hosted an event that raised $182,000 for Brown and was an avid supporter. But since the election, he has attended two Hogan fundraisers “at the request of my donors,” Democratic contributors seeking “to get well with the new administration.” At Hogan’s inaugural ball, Miller was front and center, proclaiming “a bipartisan Renaissance” in Annapolis.
Miller said he has not identified the best Democrat to try to reclaim the governor’s mansion in 2018. Hogan will have “15-20 million in the bank” and “no opponent in the primary,” he predicted, and the Democrats could be “like a circle with people shooting each other.”
“It’s possible that a not-strong contender will come forth,” Miller said. “I want the best governor for the state. I’d hope it would be a Democrat. But if the best governor is Governor Hogan, then so be it.”
Another kumbaya moment? Perhaps. But Miller also said he is prepared for the worst, and in the only way he knows how.
“Machine guns, grenades, howitzers,” he said. “You know we’re going to be ready.”
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.