By Elliott Davis
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland—Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. announced Thursday that he is stepping down from the position he’s held for more than three decades as he continues to battle cancer.
Miller, a Democrat, said during a news conference in the building bearing his name that he will remain in the Senate representing his district, in Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s counties.
Miller’s likely successor is Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, who was unanimously nominated by the Senate Democratic Caucus during a meeting Thursday. Ferguson, 36, was not yet born when Miller entered the General Assembly in the 1970s, but will now likely become the body’s first new Senate president in over 30 years. He’s currently the vice chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee.
Miller in January announced that he had been diagnosed the previous July with prostate cancer and other osteopathic issues. The longtime Maryland Senate president, 76, underwent chemotherapy during the 2019 legislative session.
“My mind is still strong, but my body is weak,” he said Thursday, adding later that “you can’t be tired and do this job at the same time.”
“I practice what they call servant leadership,” Miller said.
Miller’s cancer battle this year coincided with the death of another longtime leader in the Maryland General Assembly. Speaker of the House Michael Busch died suddenly on April 7, not long after being hospitalized with pneumonia. He had been the leader of the House of Delegates since 2003.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, said during Thursday’s news conference that Ferguson was the sole candidate to replace Miller, and the caucus unanimously voted to recommend him as the next Senate president.
This comes months after Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, emerged as Busch’s successor following a scarring fight among House Democrats that nearly saw their Republican counterparts essentially naming the next speaker.
Ferguson said after the news conference that Thursday was about honoring Miller, whom he referred to as a “titan of the state.” Ferguson told Capital News Service that the longtime Senate president is “an incredible example of leading from values.”
“Sometimes we disagree, but how you disagree matters,” Ferguson said.
Senate Majority Leader Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, said Ferguson will learn from Miller’s example.
“It’s huge, huge shoes to fill. Senator Ferguson knows that.”
Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, R-Harford and Baltimore counties, said he views Ferguson as a compromiser, like Miller.
“Now that he’s going to have the horsepower behind him, I think we’ll be able to get stuff done,” Jennings told Capital News Service.
Miller was first elected to the General Assembly in 1970 as a delegate representing Prince George’s County, according to his biography on the Maryland Senate Democrats website. Just four years later, he was elected to the Maryland Senate.
Miller was elected Senate president in 1987 and has served that position ever since. He is the longest-serving Senate president in Maryland–and United States–history, according to the biography page. Before becoming president, Miller was the chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He called his time as president the “happiest years” of his life during today’s news conference.
In a 1986 Washington Post story by the late Gwen Ifill about Miller–when he was still the chairman of the committee and “right-hand man” of then-Senate President Melvin Steinberg–the man is described as an “enforcer” who is “alternately vilified, feared and respected by his colleagues.”
“Miller’s accumulation of power, and his tactics for keeping it, are legendary in the State House,” Ifill wrote.
Miller said Thursday that his most “significant” accomplishment as Senate president was taking “title” out of divorce laws, which he said previously didn’t “recognize the value of the homemaker.” Miller added that the “eight days and eight nights of hell”–a filibuster on a bill to update Maryland’s abortion rights law–was the “most difficult time” he had during his time as Senate president.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement Thursday that he has “immense” respect for Miller, and thanked him for his service.
“As the longest continuously serving presiding officer in the nation, President Miller has been a strong, unifying leader for the legislature and the state,” Hogan said. “His steady presence and trademark humor will be deeply missed as President, but we are pleased to know that Mike will continue to represent the people of District 27 in the Senate.”
Speaker Jones said in a statement Thursday that Miller is “one of the most consequential state legislative figures of the 20th and 21st century in the United States of America.”
“He quite literally defines what it means to be a presiding officer in the modern political era, but his story is not yet fully written,” Jones added. “I will continue to rely on his counsel, guidance, and friendship as I begin my first full legislative session as Speaker of the House.”
U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, said in a statement Thursday that Miller is a “consensus builder, artful politician, and an institution in our state,” and noted that “every time Mike has run for office, he and I have been on the same ticket.”
Former President Bill Clinton attended a dinner in March–normally an annual event for past and current state senators–honoring Miller and spoke fondly of him, according to The Washington Post.
“I can’t think of any public servant I know anywhere that has done it as well or as long as this man we honor tonight,” Clinton said during a speech that night. “Mike Miller, we love you.”
Clinton recounted the pair’s long friendship, including their first meeting at a conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1987 while Clinton was governor of the state and not long after Miller became Senate president.
“I’m talking to him for a couple of minutes, and I want to reach in my back pocket and make sure my billfold is still there,” Clinton said, according to The Post.
Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening told Capital News Service that he has always had a “love-hate relationship” with Miller, but gained a “very deep respect” for him.
“We feuded,” Glendening, a Democrat, said. “…I moved on… he stayed and did some very, very good things.”
Glendening recounted Miller’s former chief of staff, Joe Bryce, telling him that Miller has three loves in his life, other than his family: Maryland, the state Senate and the Democratic Party.
“‘Any time you have a disagreement with him… you have to wrap it into one or more of these things,’” Glendening remembered Bryce telling him.
One of those disagreements was over a gun control bill that Glendening was pushing while he was governor. He said he was worried at the time that Miller was going to put the bill “in the drawer”—a legislative maneuver preventing legislation from coming up for a vote.
Glendening said he made Miller promise not to block the bill if he could prove he had the votes for it. Once Glendening knew he had the votes, he told the Senate president, “Mike, you gave me your word.”
“‘I don’t know how the hell you did that,’” Miller responded, according to Glendening, and later put it up for a vote.
“When I look at every bit of this, my conclusion is Mike may be one of the more knowledgeable elected officials at any level that this state has ever had,” Glendening said “…He respects people that come at him, if you will, with equal attention to the job.”
Veteran Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano told Capital News Service that he’s known Miller since he was a delegate in the 1970s and has “thoroughly enjoyed watching his legislative and political career” develop.
“I particularly, as a lobbyist, respect him and appreciate his directness,” Bereano said.
Bereano added that Miller “has been and continues to be a unique and forever memorable force” in the state.
Miller was born in Clinton, Maryland, on Dec. 3, 1942, according to his biography on the General Assembly website. He and his wife, Patti, have five children and 15 grandchildren, according to the Senate Democrats biography page.
Miller, an attorney, owns a firm called Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., P.A. in Clinton, according to state records.