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Government & Politics

‘It’s Awkward.’ Even Without the Gavel, Miller Still Has the Mojo

Outgoing Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) speaks at a news conference on school construction late last year as House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Miller’s presumed successor, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), look on. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

As soon as Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) announced that he intended both to step down as state Senate president and remain a member of the chamber, it was virtually certain that “who’s in charge here?” moments would occur.

On Wednesday, in Prince George’s County, one such moment arrived.

It happened at a news conference during which legislative leaders announced that their top priority — House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 — in the 2020 General Assembly session would be school construction funding. [See related story.]

After the speeches, legislators opened the floor to questions from the large group of reporters who showed up to cover what had been billed ahead of time as a “major” education announcement.

A reporter asked the legislative leaders to expand on the question of “tough votes” that one lawmaker had referenced earlier.

Standing to the side, new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) motioned for a select group to assemble behind the lectern. Miller, standing across from Jones, made a similar, more subtle gesture.

Thus prompted, Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the presumptive future leader of the Senate, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and Prince George’s County Schools CEO Monica Goldson approached the microphone.

But when it came time to actually answer the question everyone knew was coming — “how are you going to pay for all this?” — there was a pause, then heads turned, and it was Miller, the lion in winter, who stepped up.

“Funding is always a challenge,” he began. “We’re going to find a way to make it happen. We’re not only going to fund Kirwan [the education reform package], we’re going to fund school construction as well.”

That deference paid to a man who has presided over the Senate since Ronald Reagan was in the White House and the Ford Escort was the top selling car in America is not surprising. He has seen and done it all, or so it seems.

But the moment was a vivid reminder that the Maryland legislature is in the middle of a very big, very public transition.

For 17 years, Annapolis was ruled by “the Mikes” — House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who died in April, and Miller, who said last month that he decided to give up the gavel because his battle with cancer has sapped his energy.

The duo who will preside over the 2020 session has a combined zero days at the helm, other than Jones’ time filling in for Busch during her 17-year tenure as speaker pro tem.

“Look, it’s awkward,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). “It’s a transitional time. It happens in lots of institutions. Who speaks for the Senate? Is it the new leadership, which isn’t official until Jan. 8?” Or is it Miller?

“He’s still the president of the Senate,” said former Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles). “He’s still the most powerful person in the legislature stepping forward and saying here’s how we’re going to pay for it.”

A Miller ally when he served as chairman of the Finance Committee, Middleton said Miller’s instinctive feel for when issues are ripe to come to the floor remains an asset for the legislature.

“I always thought he was a great leader. I thought he was a moderate-progressive, that he moved Maryland along at the pace were Maryland was moving. Not too fast and not backwards.”

“He should have answered that question.”

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‘It’s Awkward.’ Even Without the Gavel, Miller Still Has the Mojo