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Government & Politics

The Ferguson Era Begins With Miller at Center Stage

Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) addressing his colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Maryland lawmakers got their first glimpse of the post-Mike Miller era on Thursday.

It looked and sounded a lot like the Miller years.

The legendary lawmaker, who presided over the state Senate from 1987 until Wednesday morning, used an otherwise pro forma floor session — the second of the 2020 General Assembly — to deliver a lengthy speech from his new seat, located toward the back of the chamber.

With his successor, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), standing silently and patiently at the rostrum, Miller’s perch for 33 years, the former president opined on a range of issues in the somewhat stream-of-consciousness style he used while the gavel was his.

“We’re sitting here while Rome is burning,” Miller opened, referring to the public safety crisis in Baltimore City. “We’re elected officials and we need to address it.”

He chided his colleagues for not getting more of their legislation pre-filed, particularly the complicated issues that have been debated in the past, like sports betting. “There’s no reason we have to be here for the first two weeks of the session and sit here and do nothing.”

He noted that it was Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, and with hundreds of police officers visiting the State House, lawmakers should be sure thank a cop for their service.

The President Emeritus (a new post, created just for Miller) then offered a history of how lawmakers’ office space evolved from the days when they sat at surplus furniture in the State House basement.

And he riffed on his new digs, the grand President’s Suite in the Miller Senate Office Building, named for him, a space he only used “six times” when he actually was the president and had a well-appointed but cozy office in the State House. The high-ceilinged space is his office now that Ferguson occupies the choice corner perch off the Senate floor.

“It’s quite ornate,” he offered. “Twenty years ago I looked at this room, which looked like the Taj Mahal, and it’s not me. Believe me, I’m a country guy. And I already had an office.”

He encouraged his colleagues to swing by for a visit and to make use of his adjoining conference room any time they want. (Senators who accept his offer might find Miller online. “I”m on social media. … I’ve got too much time on my hands now,” he said with a laugh.)

Ferguson, who had no choice but to cool his heels while Miller spoke, thanked his colleague for his “observations” and clarified that two sports betting bills have already been filed.

In all, Miller talked for nearly 12 minutes, a big chunk of the 50-minute session.

On Thursday afternoon Miller spoke frequently during bill hearings in his new committee, Budget and Taxation, where he sits toward the front, near the new chairman, Sen. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard).

During a discussion about a proposed light rail line in Southern Maryland, the Calvert Democrat said he supports the project “1,000%,” but he couldn’t support legislation offered by Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles) because it would take money that’s already been earmarked for other projects.

“This project’s been around a long, long time and money’s not even in the pipeline,” Ellis shot back. “That’s unacceptable. We need to step forward and make sure that money gets in the pipeline, sir.”

That sort of direct pushback from a colleague, in public, was something the powerful Miller seldom, if ever, heard in his 33 years as the Senate’s presiding officer.

Speaking on the same bill later in the hearing, Martin Harris, deputy director of the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works, paused his testimony to note Miller’s standing as a living legend.

“You are a true icon and role model for us in our district,” Harris said. “Thank you for your service.” Miller flashed a thumbs-up of thanks.

Miller is listed as sponsor of two bills so far — SB 1, a measure funding school construction, and SB 2, which would tax digital advertising.

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said the former president’s outsized presence could overshadow the senators, like Ferguson and Guzzone, who are trying to establish a footing in their new roles — but only if he persists.

“If it becomes a problem, conversations would be had in private,” Eberly said. “But Mike Miller understands the chain of command and he respects the chain of command.”

“It’s only the second day of the session,” he added.

In the meantime, Eberly noted, Miller is serving gentle notice that “I’m not going to just disappear quietly into the background.”

Also, Eberly said, because Miller stepped down from the presidency in the middle of a four-year cycle, he was denied the opportunity to make a farewell address to the chamber.

Perhaps worried that his extensive discourse on all things Maryland would give the impression that he’s having trouble adjusting to his status, Miller reassured his colleagues that “I’ve very comfortable in this role. I’m very happy in this role.”

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The Ferguson Era Begins With Miller at Center Stage