The Maryland legislature’s 2021 session will look and feel unlike any session of the modern era.
Lawmakers will sit at desks that have clear plastic shields on three sides.
Half the members of the House of Delegates will sit in two converted delegation rooms in their office building that have been recast as the “Chamber Annex.”
The galleries will be empty — no constituents, no lobbyists — save for a select handful of mask-wearing journalists and the legislature’s executive protection detail.
Committee meetings, including public hearings on legislation, will take place online.
Floor sessions will be kept to two hours at a time, a nod to the swirling contagion that, as of Wednesday, has infected more than 203,000 Marylanders.
And there will be no back-slapping or guffawing at jokes. (There shouldn’t be, in any case.)
But there will be one constant.
Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) will be there. Just like he’s shown up in Annapolis every January for the last half century.
The long-serving and much-admired Senate President Emeritus, who turns 78 Thursday, relinquished the gavel he held for 33 years in 2019. He is often in pain these days, due to the ravages of metastatic Stage 4 prostate cancer. And he has trouble getting around.
But he insists his mind and his desire to serve are as keen as ever.
“Things I have to get around to, I make a point of getting there in a wheelchair, or have a surrogate there — one of my delegates, one of my daughters, what have you,” he said during a wide-ranging interview at his Chesapeake Beach home on Tuesday.
“But in terms of me representing my constituents, I’m there every day through email and through the virtual internet.”
And lots of phone calls.
An 80-minute interview with a reporter is interrupted repeatedly by the two phones he keeps close by — his cell phone and the family’s handheld landline.
People are calling all the time these days, to check in, to see how he’s doing, and to tell the legendary lawmaker — and father figure to an uncountable number of former aides, colleagues, associates, constituents and others — how much they love him.
What’s it like to be on the receiving end of that near-constant outpouring of emotion?
It’s perhaps the only question the still-talkative, still-sharp, still-insightful Miller doesn’t directly answer.
Instead, he looks for a moment out the French doors of the family’s resplendent waterfront home, with the drapes parted wide, revealing the 1,000 feet of bay-front vista that defines the Millers’ breathtaking estate, and grabs for a different topic.
The point, he says, is that he remains on top of the work he was elected to do.
“I’m on several committees,” Miller says, rattling them off. “I talk to the president of the Senate probably every second or third day. We talk about things that need to happen. Safety precautions that need to be put in place for the Senate. What needs to get done through the State House Trust to get these matters approved.”
His successor as leader of the 47-member Senate, Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), a full 41 years younger than Miller, is doing a “fantastic job,” Miller says on more than one occasion.
During this year’s legislative session, Miller sat in the fourth row of the Senate, by the wall, a much less glamorous perch than the one he occupied during his record run as president, from 1987 to 2019.
He said he told Ferguson early on that a far-flung seat was important — to avoid having the new leader be overshadowed by his still-serving predecessor.
“I was able to suggest a role for myself which would not impede on what he was doing,” he recalled. “He was now the president of the Senate and to show that I was now subjugating myself to him and members of the body, I would put myself in one of the back rows — or I would ask him to put me in one of the back rows. And also, when he recognizes me as simply ‘the senator from District 27.’”
“I felt so honored that I was able to stay a member of the Maryland Senate. If I could just be a member of the Maryland Senate… I would be where I had always wanted to be, and participate.”
Will Miller move to the front row this year, just to make the logistics in the cramped chamber a bit easier?
“No. To the contrary,” he replies with a wave.
Given the nature of his illness, and the impact that cancer treatment often has on the immune system, does he worry about being around lots of other people?
“No,” he says. “No, no, no, no, no. If it’s a question of floor votes, I’ll be there. I’ll be on the floor of the Senate.”
Ferguson, Senate staffers and people in the chamber’s east gallery have an unusual view whenever Miller rises to speak. That’s because there’s a portrait of the former president that now looms over its still-living subject, just a few feet away.
“I didn’t ask to be an emeritus. The members of the Senate did that on their own,” he insists. “Just like they hung the picture, the oil painting in the back of the chamber, on their own. I didn’t know [about] either one of those two [actions]. I would have objected if I had known about either one of them, quite frankly. They did both to honor me — and I appreciate it very much.”
He said his staff remains hard at work on constituent matters full-time, from their desks in the Annapolis office building his colleagues named for him a generation ago.
Since committee meetings will be held via Zoom this session, the travel burden will be eased some. And the Senate may not have floor sessions every day.
“I haven’t missed a meeting yet and I fully participate as I’m able to,” he says. “I’m going to do what I do as long as my health says I can do it.”
Miller sees no shortage of tough issues for the legislature to grapple with during the upcoming session – including a state budget battered by the pandemic and a series of potentially controversial veto overrides. The session is almost certain to come as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations reach all-time highs in Maryland.
“These are extremely difficult times with great uncertainty before us,” he said.
With a doting family supporting him, grandchildren who spend weekends playing on the grounds of his home, former chiefs of staff who check in regularly, and the occasional calls from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and other high-profile politicos, Miller said that — despite the pain and limitations on his mobility — he’s “very happy” with his life.
“I couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for myself. I enjoy it immensely.”