Josh Kurtz: This Is Big

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (left) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. on the opening day of this year's legislative session in January. File photo by Bruce DePuyt

Any resemblance between the Maryland political world and a hospital ward is purely coincidental.

That sounds flip; it isn’t meant to be. But it does speak to the fragility of life – and the fragility of political power.

Take the roll of startling illness for high-ranking Maryland politicians since Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the summer of 2015:

–A liver transplant for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) in 2017, followed by open heart surgery a year later.

–A raft of health problems over the past two years for U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), including surgery to repair a heart valve.

–A cancer diagnosis last fall for now-Rep. David J. Trone (D).

–A mild stroke in 2018 for Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D).

–A fatal heart attack for the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), felled in the middle of his campaign for governor last year.

Add to all of that now Thursday’s news that state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is beginning chemotherapy to treat prostate cancer, which was first diagnosed in July.

Make no mistake, and I write this with no joy: This is a very big deal.

Forget for a minute any discussion about who might succeed Miller at some unknown future date. That conversation, and the attendant jockeying, though inevitable, is probably still a decent interval away.

For now, senators and the extended Maryland political family are dealing with the “gut punch,” as Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore County) put it, of the shocking news. All the expressions of love and support for Miller Thursday seemed wholly genuine, and why not? As Hogan’s gracious and encouraging statement about Miller reminded us, these kind of calamities can bring people – even political opponents – together.

But there’s no escaping this reality: On the first day of the first year of a legislative term, in a chamber where more than one-third of the members are new, with three quarters of the Senate committees being chaired by new people, Annapolis learned that the Senate’s most strategic thinker will at best be distracted and physically weakened for periods of time during this session.

That bears repeating: The most strategic thinker in the Senate – arguably, in all of state government – could be sidelined for periods of the session, even with his brave declaration that, “I fully intend to fight this disease as so many have and to fully carry out my Senate responsibilities.”

Josh Kurtz

Nature abhors a vacuum, and political vacuums create their own unique set of complications. Who rushes in to fill the void – and how? Everybody is going to need to tread lightly – but tread they will.

A week after the November election, I wrote that Maryland politics appears to be at an inflection point, with any number of transitions looming on the horizon. The Senate’s may be happening faster than anyone thinks – and with Miller’s health woes it’s hard not to contemplate Busch’s.

These will not be easy transitions. These will not be like gubernatorial administrations turning over every four or eight years. Those transitions are orderly and come with a set of norms.

Miller and Busch have been the presiding officers for so long — 33 and 17 years, respectively — and have accumulated so much power and know-how and institutional strength, that it’s hard to imagine what comes next.

But unseemly or not, people will be imagining – even as they hope and pray for Miller and Busch’s full and speedy recoveries.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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