A Changing of the Guard — and the Senate Culture

The state Senate will soon be under new management. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

In selecting Bill Ferguson of Baltimore City to replace Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Calvert County as president of the state Senate on Thursday, the chamber’s Democrats are turning to a man universally described as a “thoughtful,” policy-focused lawmaker, one who will take seriously his responsibility to lead, listen to and represent a diverse group of legislators.

They have also chosen a leader certain to bring change to the 47-member Senate — both in style and substance.

At 36, Ferguson is young enough to be one of Miller’s 15 grandchildren.

He is friendly and accessible, but hardly the backslapper with the big laugh that Miller is.

Politically, Ferguson is well to Miller’s left. His district is urban, not rural and exurban.

And while Miller’s climb to power came during an era of testosterone-fueled machine politics, Ferguson came of age in a time of democratizing technological and cultural change.

The new leader will likely be measured in how he puts his stamp on the Senate, colleagues and observers said on Thursday, but there’s little doubt he will bring a very different orientation.

“It’s a bit surreal,” said Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll), reflecting on the differences between Miller and Ferguson. “It is a contrast, obviously. It’ll be different. It’s definitely a changing of the guard.”

Like every lawmaker who described Ferguson on Thursday, Ready called the Baltimore lawmaker “very thoughtful. … I’ve always enjoyed discussing issues with him.”

Former Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) said Ferguson is certain to bring “a different style of leadership,” adding, “I think he has all the ingredients to bring the Senate together.”

Progressive groups were often frustrated with Miller, viewing him as a roadblock to their priorities. Minutes after news of his decision to step down Thursday, the left-leaning Maryland Center on Economic Policy distributed a news release headlined “New Opportunities for the State.”

“The upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly presents opportunities for leadership to move the state in the direction of progress and fairness,” the group said.

With the legislature poised to take up the Kirwan Commission’s multibillion-dollar education reform proposals in 2020, the group said it is “confident Senator Ferguson and [House] Speaker [Adrienne A.] Jones will stand with the people and fight back against Gov. Larry Hogan’s deeply troubling plan to raise and spend dark money to block the Kirwan Commission’s thoughtful and urgently needed public education reform package.”

The Senate’s top Republicans – Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (Baltimore and Harford Counties) and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (Eastern Shore) – attended Miller’s news conference, praising him afterward for the way he led the chamber during his 33-year tenure.

Jennings said he won’t be surprised to see Ferguson’s influence on Senate legislation.

“I think it could take a shift to the left, but I have faith that he’s going to realize that the votes aren’t always there, and that Maryland isn’t that far of a left-leaning state,” he said.

One thing is certain: At least one long-standing element of the Annapolis culture is about to change.

A group of lobbyists stood in the back of the room as Miller announced his plans. Several high-profile lobbyists – Joseph C. Bryce, Timothy Perry, Gerard E. Evans, Hannah Powers Garagiola, John Stierhoff, Josh White and Melanie Wenger — cut their teeth as top Miller aides.

Other well-compensated lobbyists, such as John Pica, Rob Garagiola, American Joe Miedusiewski, P.J. Hogan and Dennis Rasmussen, are former state senators who profited from their association with Miller.

At least three lobbyists were said to be calling senators on behalf of Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Prince George’s), who was vying to succeed Miller. Others were advising Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) when she was considering running.

Ferguson appears to have few such ties to the lobbying community.

Under Miller and the late House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), the legislature was slow to adapt to technology. Only now – 40 years after the launch of C-SPAN on Capitol Hill – is the General Assembly taking its first steps to video-stream floor sessions, a common practice around the country.

During the behind-the-scenes campaign for Senate president, some lawmakers pushed for the adoption of term-limits for committee chairmen and greater transparency.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said the institution could use “some transformational leadership, not transactional leadership.”

“He’s a smart guy,” Pinsky said of Ferguson. “I think he’ll be fair and open and transparent and try to make improvements in the culture here. It needs updating, with all due respect to our departing leader.”

Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) said Ferguson’s selection represents “an exciting opportunity” for change in the chamber.

Sticking to the script that Senate Democrats agreed upon during their closed-door session, Ferguson declined to offer a preview of his leadership style.

“I think there’s going to be lots more of that to discuss in the weeks ahead,” he said. “Today is about President Miller’s incredible legacy for the last 33 years.”

Josh Kurtz and Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

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