There is little chance that anyone — in Maryland or anywhere — will hold power as long as the late Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the former president of the state Senate who died on Friday.
A one-term delegate who won a Senate seat in 1974, Miller ruled the chamber from 1987 to 2019, a tenure widely believed to be the longest in American history.
In a series of interviews conducted by Maryland Matters over the last 18 months, those who served alongside Miller described a complex man of extraordinary talent who had a deep, authentic love for the state and its institutions, particularly the Maryland Senate.
He was a fervent Democrat who believed that government had a role to play in helping those with fewer advantages achieve success, who also understood that the pace of change had to be calibrated to suit a state that is home to both very liberal and very conservative voters.
A gregarious backslapper with a big laugh, Miller dominated large rooms and small. He was a history buff, loyal, true to his word, and a passionate advocate for public education and the Chesapeake Bay. He steered the Senate through recessions, tense policy debates and all manner of crises.
While members of his chamber occasionally got entangled in legal wrongdoing, Miller (to borrow former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis’ favorite phrase) left office undefeated and un-indicted.
And while the public view of him was as the presiding officer of the Senate, much of the influence he exerted on the state’s political eco-system occurred off-stage — encouraging some candidates to run and connecting them with support, and discouraging others.
Miller was “a very loyal, real Democrat,” said U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in a 2020 interview.
“He (was) a more conservative Democrat than some others, but he did not allow that to impede his support for items central to what he believed the Democrat ethos was in terms of helping people — whether it be education, health care, social issues.”
Although Miller insisted on decorum in the Senate chamber, he was a larger-than-life presence around the State House. Behind closed doors, he deployed a broad mix of skills. His language was often salty.
“I never worked with [former president Lyndon Baines Johnson], but I did work with Mike Miller,” said former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D). “He was capable of the full range of human emotion and persuasive skills and tactics.”
“He could be overbearing, hard-charging and threatening in one instant, and he could be kind and listening and compassionate in the next moment. He was not a one-dimensional person by any means,” O’Malley added. “He understood that progress in the public arena is about the art of accomplishing the possible in the moment. That requires persuasion. It requires compromise.”
“He didn’t always win. And sometimes his tactics backfired and caused people to dig in their heels. But in the longer run, we’ve never had a more successful Senate presidency than his.”
Miller: ‘Times change, but people don’t’
Although there were coup attempts, as colleagues chafed at his longevity, they never got far.
Those who worked closely with Miller said the key to his epic tenure was his uncanny ability to adapt to changing times.
During his 33-year run as the upper chamber’s presiding officer, Maryland become more diverse racially and more liberal politically, and women began to rise through the ranks.
A history buff who was deeply involved in national legislative organizations, Miller tracked political and policy trend-lines closely. He knew that to stay atop the heap, he had to reposition himself after every election — and sometimes more often than that.
His one major political stumble occurred in 1989, when he told a Washington, D.C., TV reporter in Baltimore that the city was “a goddamn ghetto.”
He quickly claimed that he used the phrase to show his constituents how dire conditions in the city were. But the damage was done: Any aspirations Miller had for statewide office were extinguished. But his power in Annapolis was never diminished.
In his last in-depth interview, Miller told Maryland Matters in December that his ability to find the new center of the Democratic caucus was the key to his longevity.
“I would say [that was] 90% of it, quite frankly. Honestly and truly. I knew where the Senate had been, I knew where the Senate was now, and I could predict where the Senate was going,” the lawmaker said.
“Times change, but people don’t,” he added. “They make the same mistakes over and over again. And I was determined not to do that. And at the same time recognizing where the demographics of the state are going to take us. … Recognizing that the House and Senate need to adjust to accommodate the changing demographics.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) recalled that when he was running against state Sen. Patricia Sher (D) in the 1994 primary, he received a call from Miller, 10 days before the election, inviting him to breakfast. The call was a surprise, because Miller was backing Sher.
The two met at a posh country club in Montgomery County.
“He said, ‘You’re gonna win,’” Van Hollen said.
Miller asked Van Hollen, then a member of the House of Delegates, what committee assignment he wanted. Budget and Taxation, Van Hollen replied. “Done,” Miller responded.
“The heart of Mike’s success, and the fact that he has made such a difference in the history of our state, is his instinctive, tactile sense of politics and where the center of gravity is, and what direction it’s moving in,” Van Hollen asserted.
“And his ability to adapt.”
In 1996, Van Hollen and another liberal lawmaker, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who were first-term senators at the time, nearly derailed a high-profile Miller priority, to bring two new football stadiums to Maryland, in Baltimore and Landover.
Miller was furious, and the back-benchers fell one vote short. But Miller eventually appointed to both to leadership positions.
While Miller is best known for the 33 years he guided the state Senate through its annual 90-day sessions, he also wielded extraordinary power in encouraging candidates up and down the political ladder throughout the state.
Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) recalled being aghast that he had to get Miller’s blessing if he hoped to be successful.
And when Baker became chairman of the county’s House delegation, the two clashed over a zoning measure Miller was eager to advance.
After the dust-up blew over, Baker came to appreciate Miller’s skills — and the two became close allies.
“Once he put his imprimatur on you, you instantly got — it didn’t mean you were going to win — but it meant that you got access to people who could help you,” Baker said.
“You had access to people with money. You had access to other politicians who would start meeting with you, which is what happened with me. You had access to community groups. You had access to congressmen.”
A former two-term county executive, Baker said he frequently leaned on his relationship with — and the lessons he learned — from Miller.
“There is not a single thing I did as county executive that was important and significant that I did not ask his help. … And it was given unconditionally. Even if he didn’t agree with it — and there was a lot that I did that he thought was nuts,” Baker recalled with a laugh.
Miller vs. Glendening
Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) rose through the ranks of Prince George’s politics in the 1970s, just as Miller did. But the two were polar opposites.
Glendening was a liberal college professor, bookish and a newcomer to Maryland; Miller was more conservative, more social, and an old-school pol.
In 1974, when he was running for the County Council, Glendening said he was stunned, on election night, when he got more votes in Miller’s backyard, the southern part of Prince George’s, than he did in the precincts where he was more well-known.
The Miller machine had delivered.
“It was a phenomenal demonstration — from a political science perspective — of how it worked,” Glendening said. “And it worked in part because people like Mike Miller ran his district.”
“I was teaching urban politics at the time — I was talking [to my students] about urban machines!” the former governor added, still amazed by that night’s outcome. “But I never had actually been involved and saw how smoothly it works.”
“Despite all the ups and downs, the Maryland Senate, the state of Maryland and the [state] Democratic Party are better off today because Mike Miller devoted his whole life to being president of the Maryland Senate,” Glendening added. “I feel very strongly about that.”
Glendening became governor in 1995, and there was a widespread expectation that the two would clash, because they often did in Prince George’s County.
Miller had made rude comments about Glendening in the media and the pair were not close. Glendening’s insistence that he — and not the political machine run by Peter O’Malley — would choose his department heads in Upper Marlboro, had upset the prevailing order.
But the governor said he had a “secret weapon” once he got to Annapolis — his director of legislative affairs, Joseph C. Bryce, who had served as Miller’s chief of staff. Bryce’s advice was simple: Attach any policy initiative to one of Miller’s three loves — the state of Maryland, the state Senate or the Democratic Party.
The strategy worked and the expected ill will rarely materialized.
“What has saved him from becoming his own worst enemy at times is that he has been so effective,” Glendening said. “And even if you don’t like him, and even if you’re the focus of some of his explosiveness and comments and all, as I have been, you still have to take one step back and say ‘wow, he is effective.’”
A man of his word
Baker, Glendening and others said that when Miller gave his word on something, you could take it to the bank.
“The thing I like about Miller is when he said yes, it was a real yes,” said Baker. “It wasn’t ‘yes — and good luck.’ You didn’t have to check his pulse. It didn’t matter how many enemy were coming over [the wall], he was there.”
“He was going to berate you. He was going to beat you up. He was going to test your commitment to this crazy idea that you had,” Baker added. “But he wasn’t going to abandon you. He would yell at me in ways I just found so offensive, for a grown man with three children and a law degree, but I never felt abandoned.”
Baker said Miller was particularly tough on him when he sought reforms in the county’s education system.
“He would say you’re weak, you’re a sorry leader. It’ll never get done. You asked for this crazy s— and I told you not to do it and you did it anyway. So you’re going to be f—ed and all this stuff. And then at the end, he’d pat you on the back and say, ‘we’ll make it happen. Don’t worry, Baker, we’re gonna make it happen.’ And he’d walk out!”
Hoyer, whose rise through Maryland politics coincided with Miller’s, said the late Senate president got his outspokenness from his mother, Esther Miller. “He gets great values [from his mother] — a deep sense of duty and empathy for people that sometimes is hard to find or you wouldn’t think that that would be part of his personality, because of his gruffness.”
“Mike is very smart. Very tough. Very candid. He can be vulgar at times, ribald at times,” Hoyer added. “He can be very gruff, as you know. And also very funny. But also biting. But again, all of that is on the surface. And underneath is this really deep sense of fairness and of wanting to make sure that people have a shot in life and have help in life.”
Several times during his epic tenure, Miller allowed legislation that he opposed personally to come to the floor. Measures allowing an abortion-rights referendum, a gay marriage referendum and the death penalty repeal were the most prominent.
Those who worked with him say his unwillingness to shelve policy that was ripe was key to his long hold on power.
“Mike is always 10 steps ahead of everybody else,” Van Hollen said last year.
“Here you have a Senate president from Southern Maryland — a relatively conservative part of our state — who has presided over a state that is one of the most progressive in the country. And that is really a testament to his both political sense but also his historical sense of where we’re heading,” Van Hollen said.
“We have a way of turning our leaders into cartoons,” said O’Malley. “But Mike Miller was not a cartoon. He was a guy with an appreciation of history, a love of our state, an understanding of human nature, and the capacity to be tough when he needed to be tough and to be understanding and listening and accommodating when that was what the mission called for.”