Former Colleagues Say One Last Farewell to Miller

A black cloth was draped over the portrait of the late Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) in the Maryland Senate this week. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

He was remembered by his successor as “a country boy from Clinton who became a kingmaker in Annapolis.”  

A softie and a hard-ass, everyone agreed. 

“An exceptional human being. One of a kind in many ways,” in U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer’s telling. 

A master of three-dimensional chess who kept friends and rivals on their toes.

A historian and a teacher. Mischievous, funny, demanding, generous, and loyal, with “moods [that] could change as quickly as Maryland weather,” to quote former state Sen. Robert R. Neall.

And he was a failure as a babysitter, said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), speaking from experience. 

For more than two hours on Friday, current and former colleagues of Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. paid tribute to the long-serving former Senate president, who died on Jan. 15, three weeks after resigning from the seat he held for nearly half a century.

They spoke during a special ceremony in the Senate chamber, the room Miller ruled and where his portrait now hangs, with his flag-draped casket a few yards outside the tall mahogany doors.

The two-hour Senate session was the emotional high point of Miller’s final 24 hours in the Maryland State House, where he had served since his election to the House in 1970. His tenure included 33 years as Senate president — a record in U.S. history.

Miller’s casket arrived in Annapolis at 6 p.m. Thursday for a private family visitation following a procession past several landmarks in the district he represented. Dignitaries, appearing by invitation in the State House to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, filtered in throughout the day Friday to pay their final respects, many arriving in black SUVs that pulled up alongside the State House.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who spent 12 years in the General Assembly, including eight years serving under Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. in the state Senate, pays his respects to Miller in the State House Friday. Pool photo by Bill O’Leary/Washington Post.

The list of attendees included members of Congress, including U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), former governors, other statewide officials past and present, and local leaders from across the state.

A private funeral mass and burial will take place Saturday in Clinton, where he was born and reared. The mass, which will begin at 11 a.m., will be held at St. John the Evangelist in Clinton, and will be streamed to the public through the church’s Facebook page.

‘The most fascinating person I ever met’

The Senate session featured almost 20 speakers, with three ex-members offering tributes by video. It was a sober affair, a notable contrast to the free-wheeling action on the Senate floor under Miller’s rule. Many spoke through tears, their voices thick with emotion, as they recalled day-to-day interactions with the Annapolis icon — encounters that were rich, memorable, life-changing and infused by Miller’s trademark flair. 

Senators listen to a video tribute to former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) Friday from ex-Sen. Joan Carter Conway. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

“Mike Miller was the most fascinating person I ever met,” said Neall. “His mind was always at work. That mind, what a thing of beauty.”

“Mike was fun to be with,” Neall added, though in a nod to Miller’s wife of nearly six decades, he acknowledged, “it had to be difficult to live with a human cyclone, but Patti made it look easy, with charm, class and good humor.”

Hogan told the remarkably improbable story of how a 19-year-old Miller came to babysit the future governor. 

Hogan’s father, a future congressman and county executive, was campaigning for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Frank Small Jr.

“The year was 1962,” Hogan said. “Mike had two main jobs in that campaign. One was to get Frank Small elected governor. And also to occasionally babysit five-year-old me. Mike when 0-for-2 that year. That may explain why, after that election, he became a lifelong, committed, passionate Democrat.” 

Hogan said their friendship survived difficult policy battles — replete with “overheated and colorful discussions” — and deepened as both men battled cancer.

‘For Mike, history was a way to study people’ 

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) described his successor’s love of history as a way of keeping his contemporary skills sharp.

“For Mike, history was a way to study people,” he said. “It was the idea that you could learn about yourself by learning from others. … And that in any given moment there is a lesson to be learned from many years past.” 

Several colleagues described relationships that evolved over time. Back-bench bomb-throwers who became committee chairs. Delegates-turned-senators who came to the chamber in awe of the Miller mystique, not sure what to expect. Republicans who were surprised that their ideas could get a fair hearing. 

“He was a master politician. We all know that,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, who started out as a back bencher worried that his progressive policy proposals would be squashed by Miller, a pragmatist and centrist. “He was also a psychologist and a sociologist.”

“He knew what you were thinking, what your emotions were… and he knew what moved groups of people.”

Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who arrived in the Senate from the House in 2019 after defeating a loyal Miller ally in the Democratic primary, said Miller made him feel welcome by discussing family.

Miller once lent his copy of the autobiography of Verda Welcome, the first Black woman to serve in the Senate, to McCray, who couldn’t find a copy of the book online. He said he was enthralled by the former senator and civil rights leader’s story — and decided to ask Miller if he could keep the signed copy.

“I already planned on giving it to you,” Miller replied.

Sen. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) described how Miller helped find lodging and food for eight homeless women who were living with their children in the basement of a church in her district. “We’re going to do this together,” Miller assured her. “That’s the thing that people really don’t know about Mike Miller,” Benson told her colleagues.   

“Senator Miller worked with the minority party,” said Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel), who described the year he was the only member of the chamber to vote against Miller’s election as president. “He would respect and listen to the minority party. And I think that’s a big reason Annapolis is not like Washington, D.C.”

And Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) said that many of the contentious policy battles that she waged against Miller when she served in the House were quickly forgotten when she landed in the Senate.

She said Miller could be brash, and often told her to “behave,” in their early interactions. But she described him as “warm” and “considerate,” and said she was glad she got to know as a friend rather than a foe.

“We were strange compatriots, but kindred spirits,” Carter said.

Neall, a well-liked and universally-admired veteran government hand who just stepped down as Maryland Health secretary, said part of the key to Miller’s success was his long line of talented chiefs of staff. 

Former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. lies in state on Friday.
Pool photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post.

One of two Republican senators who became became Democrats after relentless prodding from Miller, Neall said that to his staffers, his late colleague “was both mentor and tormentor. He loved them, but it was often tough love.” 

“No one was more formidable in legislative combat. No one was more persuasive in crucial situations,” Neall said. “No one was more faithful in friendship and no was more kind in tender moments.” 

Neall noted that Miller’s tenure was so vast it covered 20% of the state’s history. According to Ferguson’s count, a 175 state senators served during Miller’s presidency. 

Miller “craved action and the company of people,” Neall said. “I envied his command of profanity. A true art form. He would use all the words and all the parts of speech, and would weave them into a ribald tapestry, a torrent of words that would fill the air and linger. True poetry. It was symphonic. Awe-inspiring. It was Mike.” 

Danielle E. Gaines, Bennett Leckrone and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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