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Government & Politics

Dramatic Changes Coming to the Senate

The front two rows of the Maryland Senate, the seats occupied by the chamber’s powerful committee chairmen and vice chairmen, will have an almost entirely new look come January – dramatic fallout from an unusually large wave of retirements, primary take-downs and incumbents seeking other offices.

At a minimum, 15 of the Senate’s 47 seats will have new occupants, 16 if you include the seat of former Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore City), who resigned in March and was replaced by Jill Carter (D) after the legislature adjourned. In addition, there are at least three other incumbents who will have competitive races this November.

Depending on how those battles play out, fully one-third of the chamber could be new in 2019.

More striking even than the amount of turnover hitting the Senate is the virtual wipeout of committee leadership.


— The influential Budget & Taxation committee has lost both its leaders. Chairman Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Howard, Baltimore) chose not to seek another term, and Vice Chairman Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) ran for governor.

— The top two seats on Senate Finance are open, with the unexpected primary defeat of longtime Chair Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), who lost to Arthur Ellis, and the retirement of Vice Chairman John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel).

— The head of Education, Health and Environment Affairs, Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), trails primary foe Mary L. Washington, a District 43 delegate, by 469 votes in a race that remains too close to call. It is widely expected that Conway will come up short when all the votes are counted.

— President Pro Tem Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore City) was taken out by Del. Cory V. McCray.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky and Sen. Nancy J. King are both expected to become committee chairmen when the state Senate reconvenes in 2019. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

“It’s a huge turnover in talent and experience,” said Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery).

“It’s unprecedented,” another lawmaker said. “To lose this many people out of leadership is a really big deal.”

The McFadden and Conway races are emblematic of the wave of younger, more progressive delegates taking on, and taking out, older senators with the support of organized labor. Unions, particularly those representing government workers, have grown so frustrated with the leadership of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) that they launched the “Take a Hike, Mike” campaign outside the State House on the last day of the 2018 legislative session.

Although Miller survived his own primary, some of his most trusted lieutenants did not.

“Mike is nervous,” a colleague said. “He’s lost his team.”

So now the 11-term veteran, a wily tactician and student of history, is back at work, getting to know the newcomers — and working to fill the gaps in leadership.

Maryland Matters interviewed a dozen current and future senators, lobbyists and other State House insiders to glean a sense of the moves Miller has planned. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive internal affairs candidly.

Here’s what’s afoot:

— Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) will be named chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation, sources said, with Sen. William C. Ferguson IV (D-Baltimore City) taking over as vice chairman. Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s) will chair the capital budget subcommittee. King is a Miller loyalist who hails from the state’s wealthiest political subdivision. Peters currently serves as majority leader.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley

— Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) appears poised to move from Judicial Proceedings to take the Finance Committee gavel. Although she is 82, “her mind is as sharp as ever,” a Miller ally said. As an African-American she would bring much-needed diversity to the leadership team. Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) has a strong shot at becoming vice chairman.

— Sen. Paul G. Pinsky is expected to move up from vice chairman to chairman of Education, Health and Environmental Affairs. Though he and Miller aren’t close, Pinsky, a 24-year Senate veteran, is a leader among progressives in the chamber and would be seen as a natural pick, though Republicans will surely grumble. Kagan and Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Baltimore County), current members of the panel, could be considered for vice chairwoman.

— Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) will be named vice chairman of Judicial Proceedings, sources said, where he will serve alongside Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who is expected to remain the panel’s chairman.

Among the unknowns: who becomes president pro tem and whether Peters remains majority leader. Both are largely ceremonial positions under Miller. Veteran members of the chamber who fail to get a top committee post are expected to get one of these positions as a consolation prize.

“It’s a whole new Senate,” said a man who has watched Annapolis up close for a long time. “It’s going to be very different.”

Last Thursday, Miller held a day-long series of one-on-one meetings — 10 in all, according to insiders — with primary winners who will be new to the Senate if they prevail in November.

The talks, in Miller’s high-ceilinged corner office, are described as “getting-to-know-you” sessions in which the gregarious Miller talks about Senate history and engages in some LBJ-style bonding. “He asks, ‘What issues do you care about most? Do you have a committee preference? What are the needs of your district?,’” one lawmaker said.

While Miller is expected to remain Senate president (“Mike is gonna be just fine,” is how one old hand put it), some of the labor organizers who helped challengers knock off incumbents hold out hope that there will be an uprising in the ranks.

“It’s an open question whether he can hold on” to the presidency, said Mark J. McLaurin, political director for the Service Employees International Union Local 500, a prominent Miller foe. “He’s a man without a country. This is a completely new game.”

For now, few State House observers see a path to dethroning the man who has held the gavel since 1987, longer than anyone in Maryland history. It is unclear whether anyone has the stature or courage to take Miller on.

Another question for 2019 is whether Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) is able to push enough GOP Senate candidates to victory that the chamber is no longer veto-proof. That would make the dynamics of a second term much more favorable for Hogan than the first. Republicans need to flip five Senate seats for that to happen and are currently targeting six Democratic-held seat.

“You adapt or die,” someone close to Miller said. “Mike operates best in these environments. He’s at war.”

Even if the coup talk fizzles, union leaders hope the influx of younger, more progressive senators will result in movement on legislation boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour, advances in collective bargaining, pay equity for women and other measures.

It all adds up to a great deal of uncertainty.

“We have folks in the chamber — newcomers — who don’t owe that much to Miller,” one veteran Democrat notes. “If they sense early on that these chairs are weak, there could be problems for him [in terms of] governing. Five or six people willing to mix it up on the Senate floor and it’s a very different place.”

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Dramatic Changes Coming to the Senate