The scene: A winery on a gorgeous rural road in Calvert County Thursday night. A venue for weddings and other joyous occasions.
The event: A fundraiser for the College of Southern Maryland Foundation and its ambitions to open a leadership institute for students interested in public service and public policy.
But really, the evening was all about state Senate President Thomas V Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) – and his legacy: His unprecedented legislative career and his commitment to higher education.
Miller, the longest serving president in Maryland Senate history – his tenure began when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States – must be used to these sorts of gatherings by now.
Half a year ago, the venue was a conference room in a legislative office building named for Miller. The featured speaker was another storied politician who rose to prominence in a different state capital, William Jefferson Clinton.
Thursday night’s event at Running Hare Vineyard, a winery outside of Prince Frederick, didn’t quite have the same star power, but there was still an all-star lineup of politicians, State House lobbyists and other influencers, including former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and more than a dozen of Miller’s current and former Senate colleagues, all of whom paid a minimum of $500 for the privilege.
Officially this was a fundraiser for the college’s proposed Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Center for Leadership, on the Prince Frederick campus. It’s designed to provide scholarships for students, professorships for scholars, and seminars for those interested in public policy.
“Imagine being a young person today, trying to find your footing and making your way,” CSM President Maureen Murphy told the crowd. The center, she said, would help inquiring minds through an era when people “give as much credence to opinion as to fact.”
The CSM Foundation is aiming to raise $500,000 for the initiative. The goal is to create an endowed scholarship fund for student leaders, establish professorships, host leadership forums and programs for the community, and set up internships and other programs for students.
“The Thomas V. Mike Miller Center for Leadership has never been more needed than it is right now,” Murphy said.
Miller, as he is the first to tell everyone, is sick. He’s 76 and has been battling prostate cancer for over a year.
“And now I have shingles,” he told the more than 300 people assembled at the winery Thursday night.
Each public event involving Miller nowadays, inevitably turns into a combination of roast and touching tribute, whether Miller wants it or not.
When Clinton showed up at a dinner for former state senators in Annapolis earlier this year, Miller was jazzed, spoke fast, and told hilarious stories.
This time, Miller seemed more subdued, speaking for only a few minutes, eager to turn the attention to the other public officials present, and his family.
Maryland Health Secretary Robert R Neall, a former Senate colleague and friend of Miller’s for four decades, served as the roast master.
“His brain is Smithsonian,” Neall said. “You simply cannot imagine all the crap in there.”
For example, Neall said, Miller can tell you in an instant the flip side of Elvis Presley’s single, “Don’t be Cruel” (It was “Hound Dog”) and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” (“Honey Don’t”).
“How does he know all this stuff?” Neall said. “But just as important, why?”
Neall called Miller’s use of language “Homerian and Shakespearean,” and said, “He can with words weave horse manure into fine Egyptian cotton. And on occasions, to everyone’s amazement, he can reverse the process…He could recite the Gettysburg address using only profanity.”
Neall gave a nod to Miller the legislative tactician as well, recalling a favorite phrase, “I can’t predict the future, but I do know what’s going to happen.”
“Machiavelli could learn a thing or two from him,” Neall added.
Next, state legislators from Southern Maryland plus the leaders of the county commissions in the three Southern Maryland counties, Democrats and Republicans, paid tribute.
Charles County Commission President Reuben B. Collins II (D) reminded the crowd that Miller, in addition to his long Senate career, is also a killer lawyer, feared and respected in courthouses across Maryland. He recalled as a young lawyer observing Miller walk into the Charles County courthouse: “It seemed that every clerk in the courthouse stopped everything to say hello…I thought, that’s the kind of lawyer I want to be.”
In a twist, Miller introduced politicians to the crowd. One was Angela Alsobrooks (D), the new Prince George’s County executive and a rising star in Maryland politics. She noted that Miller’s tenure as Senate President overlapped with “four or five of my predecessors. What they don’t know is, I’m his favorite.”
Alsobrooks also recalled being a young prosecutor in the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office, working alongside another rookie, Miller’s daughter, Missy. She learned then about the formidable and close-knit Miller family.
Then Miller introduced a man who needed no introduction, “Steny Hamilton Hoyer,” as he called him, the U.S. House majority leader, who has represented Southern Maryland in Congress for decades and whose long political career has been closely tied to Miller’s.
Hoyer said that of all the politicians he’s known through the years, “three extraordinary people” stand out: the late Maryland House speaker Michael E Busch (D) (“a man of principle and courage”); his longtime rival in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (“In my 50-plus years of public service, I have not met a stronger leader”), and Miller.
Hoyer said that wherever he travels, political leaders in other states ask him whether he knows Miller. They have, in fact, run in the same circles and been on the same ticket every time Miller has appeared on the ballot, dating back to 1970.
“He’s a legend,” Hoyer said. “And he’s re-elected [as Senate president] by his colleagues every year. This is a business of ambitious people. And if there were people who thought they could beat Mike Miller, he wouldn’t be the longest-serving in that position.”
With that, Miller called up his five children (his wife was already at the front of the room with him) to pose for photographs. It was a fitting coda for the evening.
Several of Miller’s fellow lawmakers also described the Senate under Miller as a family.
“We go behind closed doors, we yell and scream,” observed Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s). “We come out, people say, ‘oh, they’re in love.’”