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Josh Kurtz: The Hidden Campaign for Senate President

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) is expected to lay out his plans during a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday. File photo

One of the most important campaigns underway in Maryland right now is almost invisible. It’s the barely formed race to replace Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

We don’t know when the election will actually take place. In fact, the small universe of voters – 47 senators – and probably even the candidates themselves, would prefer it come later rather than sooner.

Miller has been on the job for 33 years – a record in Maryland and in the United States of America. But his announcement in January that he has been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer has accelerated the succession timetable, even if there is no clarity.

Just as there were years of jockeying to replace the late House speaker Michael E. Busch (D) before he died, there is some preliminary jockeying underway to replace Miller. But the moves are far more tentative and harder to discern.

Busch did not seem to mind the jockeying; in a certain way, he encouraged it. He saw that there were talented leaders waiting in the wings to replace him, and he wanted them to be ready.

Of course, no one could foresee Busch’s swift and untimely passing this spring. But the candidates to replace him were largely ready – both for the abbreviated campaign and for the job ahead.

In the Senate, it’s very different. Before knowing Miller was sick, most of his fellow senators assumed then-senator Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) was the frontrunner to replace him. But Middleton wound up losing his Democratic primary race last year, leaving no obvious successor.

Now, the names of a quartet of senators are being bandied about as potential Miller replacements: Majority Leader Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), Budget and Taxation Chairwoman Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), Capital Budget Chairman Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), Education, and Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) are most often mentioned. The list could obviously grow.

All four are seasoned and serious lawmakers, with long records of service in the Senate and beyond. Yet somehow, it is hard to imagine any of them ascending to the top job.

These state senators are being bandied about as potential Miller replacements: Guy J. Guzzone, left, Nancy J. King, Douglas J.J. Peters and Paul G. Pinsky.

Part of that is simply a reflection of Miller’s longevity. He’s such an institution, it’s almost impossible to picture anyone else even standing at the rostrum, let alone compiling his awesome record of power and legislative influence. In fact, there is no one in the Senate today who has served under a president other than Mike Miller.

This was not the case in the House. The two leading contenders to replace Busch, Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), had been leaders in their chamber for years, and it was easy enough to imagine either of them in charge. Same for Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the compromise choice for speaker on May 1 when the Democratic caucus deadlocked between McIntosh and Davis.

But the leading Senate contenders have not held leadership positions for very long. Pinsky and King just became committee chairmen this year. Guzzone only became majority leader this year. Same for Peters on the Capital Budget panel.

And now, with Miller ailing, no one wants to campaign for his job overtly. That’s understandable.

To be sure, Guzzone has helped his cause by contributing generously to his colleagues in the past few election cycles. King has been a mentor to younger women and is well-versed on budgetary matters. Pinsky has long been the chamber’s leading progressive light. And as Capital Budget chairman, Peters has traveled the state visiting his colleagues’ districts to see their priorities. That builds goodwill.

But there are reasons to question each of the possible candidates’ claims to the job – from temperament to policy chops to ideology to lack of independence.

And who knows, after decades of Miller, what rank-and-file senators are going to want next? Something completely different? More of the same? An older Senate president who can be something of a bridge to the next generation of leadership? Someone younger and more vital? As usual, questions of race, gender, ideology and geography will also come into play.

So it’s entirely possible that there could be other senators contemplating a run for president and taking preliminary steps, or at least possibly hoping that they can emerge as a compromise candidate, as Jones did in the House. You can look to the second row in the Senate chamber where the committee vice chairmen sit for a collection of potential additional contenders. For that matter, you can sit even further back and be a plausible candidate.

But what does a campaign that’s not yet really taking place look like? You have to pay attention very carefully. Here are some suggestions:

What senators are showing up at their colleagues’ fundraisers? How are they doling out campaign contributions? Who is liking their colleagues’ social media posts? Who is calling their colleagues just to check in? Who is having lunch, getting coffee, just to say hi? Who is making the scene at the Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City?

Not all of these activities are visible to the naked eye. Not all are proof positive that someone is gearing up to run for a job where, currently, there is no vacancy.

But make no mistake, these activities are taking place. And they all add up to something.

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Josh Kurtz: The Hidden Campaign for Senate President