Speculation and Jockeying Intensify as Thurs. Caucus Meeting Approaches

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

With Maryland’s Democratic state senators set to meet Thursday in Annapolis, speculation is running rampant about what Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) will tell his colleagues about his health and his future – and the jockeying to replace him is intensifying.

While the agenda for the Democratic caucus meeting is shrouded in mystery, Miller, who has stage 4 prostate cancer and other ailments, is almost certain to deliver the health update he promised his colleagues earlier in the year. And several senators said this week that they expect to be presented with a proposed rules package to govern any future caucus election to replace Miller, who has held the job for 33 years.

What Miller will say – and what will happen next – is anyone’s guess.

But there is increasing speculation that Miller, a singular figure in Maryland politics and policymaking who is 76 years old, will announce his departure. And the race to succeed him as Senate leader, which has taken place quietly for months, would then explode into public view.

“There’s been a sub rosa campaign going on – that’s not a shock to anybody,” said Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), one of a handful of Democrats who might seek to replace Miller.

The list of possible successors is evolving – and will continue to do so in the days ahead.

“The landscape is changing every hour,” said one senator Monday evening – who, like many lawmakers contacted for this story requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.

Some potential contenders for the Senate president’s gavel do not want to even publicly acknowledge that a contest is taking place.

“Miller’s the president. I support the president,” said Senate Majority Leader Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard). “Until I hear otherwise, there isn’t a race.”

What has become apparent after more than a dozen interviews this week is that Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, has emerged as a serious contender in the race. Ferguson has been reaching out to several colleagues over the past week – including at a dinner of the city’s Senate delegation – and is telling colleagues that he believes he has a path to victory.

Ferguson did not respond to a phone message Monday.

Meanwhile, another senator assumed to be in the mix to replace Miller – Budget and Taxation Chairwoman Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) – has apparently taken herself out of consideration and has cast her lot for now with Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), according to several colleagues. Peters is a former majority leader who serves as chairman of the Capital Budget Committee – a position that has enabled him to travel the state and discuss capital spending priorities with his colleagues.

There is also some talk that another contender could be emerging from Montgomery County – Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D), vice chairman of the Finance Committee. Feldman and King did not respond to messages Monday.

Peters has acknowledged that he’s likely to run if Miller chooses to step aside, but was hesitant to say much more.

“I think we’re all kind of wondering what’s happening here on Thursday and once the president makes a decision there will be all kinds of activity,” he said in an interview.

Caucus leadership elections contain their own unique set of dynamics that are often unknowable to anyone but the participants. The choice can be highly personal for lawmakers – especially in a legislative chamber with just 47 senators.

With the Democratic caucus totaling 32 members, it will take just 17 votes to prevail in any caucus ballot to replace Miller – assuming the Democrats agree to abide by the caucus choice and stick together on the Senate floor when a formal vote for president would take place.

“No one has the 17 votes – I can tell you that,” said one senator Monday, a sentiment echoed by several lawmakers.

If there is a vote to replace Miller, senators will have multiple things to consider as they contemplate possible successors – including a candidate’s age, ideology, geographical base, committee assignment, ability to raise money and serve as a campaign strategist and party spokesperson, and other more obscure or personal considerations.

“All of us agree that none of us has the skillset that Mike Miller has,” one senator said.

It is lost on no one that the current top contenders – Ferguson, Guzzone, Peters, Pinsky and possibly Feldman – are all white males.

Most of the Senate’s African-American members met over the weekend, sources said, and while they could not reach a consensus on a candidate to support, they did discuss general goals for the succession process and for Senate management going forward.

Given the fluidity of the situation, several senators acknowledged that the field of candidates to replace Miller could continue changing, and a last-minute dark horse could materialize. They also said that commitments of support are highly ephemeral, especially if the votes for Senate president in the Democratic caucus are made in a secret ballot.

Of the current contenders, Peters is seen as the most politically moderate – and the candidate most in the mold of Miller ideologically. Some colleagues are wondering whether the Senate Democratic Caucus in 2019 ought to embrace Peters given his long opposition to abortion rights.

Peters, who represents Bowie, is very much in the mold of his two immediate predecessors – former Sen. Leo E. Green Sr. (D) and the late Sen. Edward T. Conroy (D), devout Catholics who were liberal on economic issues but conservative on social issues. Since joining the Senate in 2007, Peters has voted several times for unsuccessful measures to restrict abortion funding and access.

But Peters did support legislation in 2017 that provides state funding for Planned Parenthood if federal funding is yanked from the family planning organization. In 2018, he received a B grade on the NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland scorecard – the same grade as Pinsky and Guzzone.

Colleagues who are supporting Peters note that Miller was personally pro-life when his tenure as Senate president began but has not stood in the way of abortion rights legislation, and they argue that Maryland has strong abortion protection laws. But some other colleagues said that, with abortion rights at the national level potentially imperiled in the Supreme Court, they consider Peters’ views on abortion as a deal-breaker. The legislature may consider a measure in the 2020 session to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

In an interview, Peters said he would publicly address the question if there is a race to replace Miller.

Some senators said Ferguson, Guzzone and Pinsky are in regular contact and could end up joining forces in some fashion. Some colleagues, while praising Pinsky for his progressive principles, have wondered whether he is too ideologically inflexible to serve as Senate leader.

What is abundantly clear, as Thursday approaches, is that this is unchartered territory for the members of the state Senate. No one knows what Miller is going to say. And there hasn’t been a contested leadership election in the chamber since 1982.

“No one was around the last time it happened,” one senator observed.

That’s not entirely true – Mike Miller was.

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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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