Josh Kurtz: A Transfer of Power Unlike Any We’ve Seen

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (left) listens as his presumed successor, Sen. Bill Ferguson, speaks at a news conference in Annapolis last week. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Every eight years at most, the state of Maryland goes through a transfer of power.

When a new governor takes over, the transition is usually pretty orderly – even if the outgoing and incoming governors despise each other. There are norms and traditions to be followed, and as the old saying goes, there can only be one governor at a time. Even if the departing governor’s power is waning, he’s still in charge during that 10-week period, until the new guy takes over.

The transition we’re about to witness in the Maryland Senate is something completely different. For one thing, it’s the first in a mind-blowing 33 years.

Equally fascinating, the outgoing Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), plans to stick around. Most likely, he’ll sit just a few feet below the rostrum in the Senate chamber, where the new guy, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), will preside.

It’s hard to conjure up this tableau and not think, awkward!!!

Ferguson has said he considers Miller a mentor and will value his advice. Miller has said he wishes Ferguson well and wants to be as helpful as he possibly can. No doubt, both mean it sincerely.

But it’s hard not to imagine this arrangement going off the rails somehow – and creating all kinds of confusion and divided loyalties for their colleagues.

We don’t yet know whether Ferguson plans to make wholesale changes to the Senate leadership team, or how quickly he’d make them. But surely that process would be a lot cleaner if Miller wasn’t still there – and if Ferguson weren’t surrounded by people whose leadership jobs were doled out by Miller.

There are also logistical questions, which seem small but can loom large in a small institution like the state Senate.

At what point before the next legislative session begins on Jan. 8 does Ferguson move into Miller’s big State House Office? Where does Miller at that point go? When does Miller give up the big staff, and where do they go? Does he give up the state car and the police protection?

As a practical matter, these changes cannot take place at noon on Jan. 8, even if the baton isn’t officially handed off until then. Same with any changes Ferguson might want to make in Senate leadership or committee line-ups. They will have to happen sooner.

It’s widely assumed that Ferguson will pursue a more progressive agenda than Miller did. It is also assumed that Ferguson inevitably will have to move slowly before putting the Senate through perceptible ideological changes.

Miller and Ferguson are determined to try to work together, but what if Miller disagrees with his successor – on policy, on personnel matters, on tactics, or on Senate rules? Will he communicate his dissent privately or publicly? What ability will Miller have to move his colleagues compared to Ferguson’s? What desire will he have to do so, if the occasion arises?

Three articles this week – in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and Maryland Matters – examined the shift in the General Assembly’s geographical balance of power born from the ascension of Ferguson and new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Make no mistake, this is a real thing.

But among some of the people interviewed – many of whom were Miller loyalists or old-line Prince George’s powerbrokers – there was an undercurrent of nostalgia for the old ways, the Miller regime, the back-room deal-making, that had absolutely nothing to do with regional balance at all.

Consider this a hidden challenge to Ferguson’s legitimacy. It’s not intentional – and it’s certainly not being fueled by Miller himself. But it’s out there, it’s institutional, it’s in the ether, and Ferguson will have to deal with it.

Even with two Baltimoreans as presiding officers in the legislature, regionalism isn’t quite as big a deal in the State House as it once was. There’s no Pete Rawlings, no Barbara Hoffman, intimidating their colleagues and muscling through every one of Baltimore’s major funding priorities.

Having and Ferguson and Jones in place will help Baltimore, of course. But it isn’t quite the same. And remember, Ferguson grew up in Montgomery County.

The D.C. suburbs have the numbers in the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. But their senators and delegates still have to figure out how to amass power. That was true when Miller was in control – and it may still be true 33 years from now. That’s a conversation for another day.

Ferguson is lucky that the two most senior senators after Miller – Senate Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) and Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) – are committed to ensuring his success. And he of course has plenty admirers in the Senate chamber, especially among younger more progressive colleagues, black and white, male and female. That’s why he’s about to take over in the first place.

Mike Miller has earned the right to go out any way he chooses. He’s a history maven, and knows well the important role senior statesmen can play in a legislative body. He’s hoping to be that guy, and he’ll no doubt enjoy it.

But it’s still hard to think about without coming up with that “A” word again: awkward.

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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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