When Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) entered the Senate chamber on Thursday, it was anything but business as usual.
Miller started off by explaining how the morning session starts: when the doors are locked, why there’s an early quorum call, and so on.
“I’m going to be doing these things as we go along because we have more new members than we’ve ever had in the history of the Senate on opening day,” Miller said. “People here have never served in government before, much less the House of Delegates or Senate and we have a great history.”
“And people need to know where we come from,” Miller said, breaking into tears.
Miller, a devout Catholic, struggled to gain composure during the morning prayer, offered by the Rev. Paul C. Sparklin of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Crofton.
“As you can see, I’m not off to a good start,” he said. A box of tissues and a bottle of water were nearby.
A short time after the prayer, Miller announced that a statement had been passed around the Senate chamber detailing his recent diagnosis with advanced prostate cancer. The 76-year-old Senate president started chemotherapy treatments on Tuesday, the day before the opening of the 439th General Assembly session (his chief of staff explained his absence from Annapolis that day by saying he’d been suffering from a stomach bug). He is the longest serving Senate president in American history, having been unanimously reelected to the post by colleagues from both parties on Wednesday.
In the lengthy written statement, Miller said, “Beyond my tremendous love for my wife and family, I have no greater commitment than to the success and stability of the Maryland Senate.”
The Senate president intends to preside over the chamber for the duration of the three-month legislative session. His chief of staff, Jake Weissmann, said chemotherapy treatments will be scheduled once every three weeks, and near weekends to minimize Miller’s absences.
As Weissmann fielded questions from reporters, Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) interjected.
“We all miss days. Every senator here misses some days,” said Jennings, who added that learning of Miller’s diagnosis was a “gut punch.”
“We love the guy. Although we disagree sometimes, he’s still a good leader. … I could not ask for a better person to work with,” Jennings said.
Newly elected Senate President Pro Tem Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) will preside over the chamber in Miller’s absence.
“Nobody can take his place,” she said. “But I will do the best job I can from the rostrum.”
Klausmeier said she did not know how often she’d be pressed into duty.
‘He is totally engaged’
Miller’s dramatic announcement – telegraphed to reporters the day before and in lightly-sourced news articles that began appearing online late Wednesday night – comes as a shock to a legislative body that has been firmly under his control for more than three decades. Five of Miller’s former chiefs of staff sat in the chamber for the announcement, and three former senators – David R. Brinkley and Robert R. Neall, now members of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) cabinet, and Patrick J. Hogan, now a lobbyist – sat on the Senate floor.
In an interview, Brinkley said he was moved to attend because he recently passed the 30-year anniversary of his own cancer diagnosis. “I just wanted to show support for him and his family,” said Brinkley, the secretary at the Department of Budget and Management.
While Miller said he was first diagnosed with the cancer in July, he only learned on Dec. 27 that it had progressed to the point where he would need chemotherapy. He said he wanted to inform his colleagues about his “changed condition” as quickly as possible.
No one – not even Miller – knows what the cumulative impact of the chemotherapy might be and how often he’ll be absent.
Miller’s disclosure comes at the start of a new four-year term, with 17 freshman senators in a chamber of 47.
What’s more, three of the Senate’s four standing committees have new chairmen, and in addition to Klausmeier, several leaders of the Democratic caucus are also new to their posts. Miller was seen by close allies, newcomers and even skeptics of his leadership as the glue holding the chamber together – not to mention a master strategist and legislative tactician.
But several senators in interviews Thursday said they did not expect Miller’s illness to impact the workflow or dynamic of the Senate too dramatically.
“We always have conversations about the agenda and the president is participating in every one of these,” said Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), the new majority leader. “He is totally engaged.”
Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) noted that the Senate agenda is often dictated by the work of the committees.
“I think Mike is going to do the best he can to make sure the [Senate] floor is operating smoothly,” he said.
Brinkley conceded that Miller’s illness “could change the dynamics” in the Senate, but he predicted that the will of all the newcomers would impact the political and policy developments in the chamber as much as any Miller absences.
“I don’t know if in and of itself it will change anything,” he said. “The legislature has been around for centuries.”
Hogan, who survived his own cancer diagnosis in 2015, issued a statement supporting Miller.
“My heart goes out to President Miller on what I know must be one of the toughest days he’s faced,” Hogan said. “I know firsthand how hard it is to receive a diagnosis like this. But I also know firsthand that Mike Miller has earned his place in Maryland political history because he’s a fighter who always gives it everything he’s got, no matter how tough things get. Mike’s tenacity, bravery, and perseverance will ensure that he wins this battle, and he has my full support.”
In an interview Thursday, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), said he was saddened by the news and called Miller “a bigger than life figure in the legislature.”
Busch, 72, has had his own health problems – heart bypass surgery in September, and a liver transplant in 2017 after being diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
“Everybody is pulling for him,” Busch said. “We all go through our health problems. I know what it’s all about. But knowing Mike Miller, he’ll beat this. And he’ll keep a good sense of humor to him.”
Asked Thursday whether Miller’s diagnosis had sparked discussions about the future of the Senate, given the president’s long tenure, Jennings said no.
“I don’t want to think about it, because I’m nervous about who would come behind him,” he said.