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Master of the Middle: How America’s Longest-Serving Senate Leader Stays in Power

Maryland’s Mike Miller has been in charge for more than 30 years.

Maryland’s state Senate president, a Democrat who has held the post since the Reagan administration, can hold grudges for years, if not decades. But he knows there are more important things: namely, keeping the Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the Maryland Senate, and making sure he’s the one leading those Democrats.

So after progressive candidates ousted four of his top allies in the chamber during last year’s Democratic primary, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller didn’t waste any time with score-settling. Instead, he set out to make friends among the newest members of his caucus. He started calling them at 7 a.m. on the day after the primary. Cory McCray, a member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore, got one of those calls. The day before, McCray had knocked off Nathaniel J. McFadden, who, as the Senate president pro tem, was effectively the Senate’s second-most powerful member. McCray was too exhausted from the campaign to talk when the phone rang at 7, but by the next day, the two were meeting in Miller’s office in Annapolis. McCray campaigned on the idea that his predecessor hadn’t brought his economically distressed district enough financial resources from the state. Miller steered McCray toward a seat on the budget committee. “You have to applaud someone who, when things change, he gets out in front of it,” McCray says of Miller. 

At first glance, Miller seems an unlikely choice to lead a legislative chamber in one of the country’s most liberal states. He’s an old-school Irish Catholic who collects guns as a hobby and lives in the countryside. This, as the Democratic Party, particularly in Maryland, is getting younger, more diverse and more urban. For decades, liberals have complained that he’s out of step and too conservative for their communities, while Republicans have chafed at Miller’s uncanny ability to box in GOP governors and push unabashedly partisan agendas.

For a time, it seemed like 2018 could have been the year when the 76-year-old Miller would finally be reined in, if not outright defeated. But come Jan. 9, he will preside over the opening of yet another four-year session of the Maryland Senate. His caucus -- and perhaps even the Maryland Democratic Party -- may be shifting left, but Mike Miller is staying put. 

It’s a familiar situation for many Democrats around the country. Even with a blue wave roiling the political waters, Democrats are still largely relying on experienced -- but not necessarily ideologically pure -- leaders to guide their legislative efforts. It’s true with incoming U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as legislative leaders in Democratic bastions such as Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island. In Maryland, as in those other places, the challenge for Democratic leaders will be balancing the demands of newly emboldened progressives with the caution of more conservative members who want to maintain the party’s appeal to moderates. The party’s long-term viability may hang in the balance. 

For Miller, staying in power means paying attention to the things that got him there in the first place. He reads history obsessively, particularly about political leaders. But he also stays current. Miller is always scanning for developments around the country, in case they might be applicable in Maryland. Moreover, he has accrued enough information about his home state that he often seems to know more about senators’ districts than they do. 

But a lot of the feedback Miller gets is from his own district. More than two decades ago, he moved from the Washington suburbs to a house near the Chesapeake Bay where, he says, “you have to go through the armory to get to the library.” His neighbors in the Calvert County part of his district are far more conservative than those in the Washington suburbs, giving him a sense of how a wide swath of Maryland voters feel about issues. “You’re able to sense what’s going to happen before it happens,” he says. “You outwork everybody. You stay at the table the longest. You know where the opposition is coming from. You try to make the politics fit the needs of the state.” 

It’s a formula that’s kept Miller at the center of Maryland politics for decades.


Democrats have controlled the Maryland House since 1921 and the Senate since 1900. Both chambers have had veto-proof majorities since 1922. (David Kidd)

Progressives may complain that Miller isn’t liberal enough, but nobody questions his credentials as a Democrat. 

Miller grew up in a Democratic household, the first of 10 children, in what was then a rural area of Prince George’s County, outside Washington, D.C. As he tells it, his mother was a New Deal Democrat and his father was a conservative Southern Democrat. He learned the retail trade starting at the age of 10, working in his family’s grocery and beer business, until he went to college and on to law school.

When Miller got into politics, he advanced rapidly through the ranks of the Democratic Party, starting under the tutelage of Steny Hoyer, who is now the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. House, and other party bosses. He joined the House of Delegates in 1971 and moved to the Senate four years later. 

Miller first won election as Senate president in 1987. He had no opponent. By the early 2000s, he was already the longest-serving Senate president in Maryland history. His colleagues decided to name a new Senate office building in Annapolis for him. He claims he never wanted the honor, and, in any event, he rarely uses his office there, instead preferring a dark corner office, crammed with books, just off the Senate floor. 

Early in his tenure as Senate president, Miller had a good rapport with President Bill Clinton. For several years during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Miller led the national Democratic group, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, that focuses on winning majorities in state legislatures. The Washington Post said Miller “quickly transformed it from a fledgling organization into an influential -- if largely unknown -- political entity.” (The Post also pointed out that the DLCC spent heavily in Maryland under Miller’s leadership, and a few large donations attracted legal scrutiny but no serious repercussions.)

In 2006, Miller predicted that Maryland Democrats would wipe out Republicans in that year’s elections, including Gov. Robert Ehrlich. “We’re going to bury the Republicans six feet deep, faces up, so they won’t come out for 20 years,” Miller said at the time. Ehrlich lost his reelection bid, although it would only be eight years before another Republican took the governor’s mansion. But Democrats’ hold on the Maryland General Assembly remains as strong as ever: Democrats have controlled the House since 1921 and the Senate since 1900. Both chambers have had veto-proof majorities since 1922.

Almost from the day Miller entered politics, he’s been criticized as being out of step with the times. Early on, he relied on machine-style tactics to sideline rivals and consolidate power in Prince George’s County, even as those methods were falling out of favor with the increasingly suburban voters in the area. As subdivisions replaced tobacco farms, black residents flocked to the area, and Miller often clashed with black leaders who wanted more African-Americans elected to public office. His hopes for statewide office were effectively dashed when he told a TV station in a 1989 interview that “Baltimore is a goddamn ghetto. It’s worse than inner-city Washington, D.C. It is shit … I hope you’re not going to play this on tape.” The station did play it, and Miller apologized.

Personal rivalries have also threatened his hold on power. For years, Miller butted heads with Parris Glendening, when Glendening served as the county executive of Prince George’s County. They were not only competitors in the same backyard, they were also temperamentally opposites. Glendening was an even-keeled college professor worried about environmental issues, even as he pushed for growth in the county. Miller could run both hot and cold, a bully or a bridge-builder, but he cringed at some of the developments that Glendening allowed. When Glendening won his race for governor in 1994, many political observers figured a reckoning was coming for Miller. But tempers cooled in Annapolis at least in part, Miller says now, because Glendening hired Miller’s chief of staff for the same role in the governor’s office. From then on, he says, the men agreed to give each other what the other wanted as much as they could.

Since then, Miller has been more accommodating to governors -- even, to some extent, Republicans. Miller promised Ehrlich, who took office in 2003, that he would get three years of relative peace. “In the fourth year,” he reportedly warned him, “we’ll take out a machine gun.” As a result, Miller’s opened himself up to criticism from the left that he is too willing to work with Republican governors, including the incumbent, Gov. Larry Hogan. 

But when Democrats, like Hogan’s predecessor Martin O’Malley, are in power, Miller is also criticized for holding up or watering down liberal legislation. In some cases, he has had to allow Senate votes on bills that he personally opposes. For example, he voted against the 2012 law to permit same-sex marriage and a 2013 law to repeal the death penalty, both major priorities for O’Malley. While O’Malley was governor, Miller shut down state government to force a debate over his plan to add a casino in Prince George’s County, which lawmakers eventually agreed to do. 

The latest effort to unseat Miller started in earnest just days after the legislative session concluded in April. SEIU Local 500, one of the largest unions in Maryland, rallied several progressive groups and state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat and frequent Miller critic, to launch a “Take a Hike, Mike” campaign for the June primary elections. “President Miller is out of step and out of date with politics in the state of Maryland. He is the embodiment of a bygone era,” Franchot says. “He is Lyndon Johnson in the age of Beto O’Rourke.”

“We want to move the state forward,” adds Charly Carter, now the executive director of Step Up Maryland and the Progressive Pipeline Project, which aims to recruit and train progressive political candidates. “He’s digging in his heels. He has an ability to frustrate a progressive agenda because of his control of committees. But people don’t want to wait any longer.”

That’s why the goal of the campaign wasn’t just to defeat Miller, but also to take out his allies, particularly the powerful committee chairs who tended to either moderate or outright kill proposals championed by the left. In the end, Miller was left standing, but many of his legislative allies were not. Newcomers unseated four members of the old guard, including the Senate president pro tem and the chairs of two of the Senate’s four standing committees. Several longtime Democratic senators retired. 

Liberal groups have been exasperated with Miller and the Senate Democratic caucus for moving slowly on bills they think need greater attention. Labor unions and several other groups, for example, have been pushing to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023. In 2014, the legislature raised Maryland’s minimum wage to $10.10, which went into effect last year. But liberal advocates argue that the rate is not enough to live on. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, two of the state's most populous counties, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., had already agreed to increase their minimum wages to $15 an hour by 2021. The statewide effort enjoyed plenty of support among lawmakers. More than half of the members of the 141-seat House signed on as cosponsors to the House version, while 20 of the Senate’s 47 members backed the Senate version. But neither bill ever got a vote; both died in committees.

Then there was the sick leave bill. Left-leaning groups worked for six years to get it passed, but the proposal, which had passed in the House, languished in the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which eventually scaled back the House’s version. Even after it passed the Senate and both chambers overrode the governor’s veto, the Senate passed a new piece of legislation to delay implementation. The House refused to go along, and some 700,000 Marylanders immediately started accruing sick leave.

Liberal groups have plenty of pent-up demands they want the Senate to move on. The Baltimore Police Department is beset with problems, and many black constituents in Baltimore and other communities are calling for further changes to the criminal justice system. Environmental groups want to require the state to get half of its electricity from renewable resources by 2030. Public-sector unions are frustrated that they have to get piecemeal permission from the legislature to organize government employees; their short-term goal is to get authorization to organize community college workers.

Many advocates on the left feel these efforts have been stymied, even in a state that has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, because Miller has held them up. They see Miller’s fingerprints on various efforts to either moderate or outright kill liberal legislation. 

Carter, the progressive activist, says that could change given the results of last year’s primaries. “If he’s the shrewd political animal I know, he will be moving farther to the left,” she says, noting that all of his lieutenants were taken out. “Nothing sends a message like a body.”

Mark J. McLaurin, the political director of SEIU Local 500, also thinks Miller will move to the left, but worries it might not be as much of a shift as progressives are hoping for. “Miller has been pretty cagey at positioning himself in front of a parade that is about to run him over,” McLaurin says. “When it came to sick leave, he was always against it, then he signed on and watered it down. He involves himself to shape legislation that he doesn’t like to make it more to his liking.”

Miller is mindful that Maryland is not as liberal as states such as California or New York, so he tries to figure out when an issue is politically ripe before he lets the Senate take it up. In Maryland, after all, voters can overturn acts of the legislature they don’t agree with, so it doesn’t make sense for lawmakers to pass something that voters would reject. “He won’t let it come out until it’s time,” says Thomas “Mac” Middleton, who led the Senate Finance Committee as it worked to refine the sick leave bill and many other controversial proposals. 

But the delay getting the sick leave bill out of the finance committee wasn’t Miller; it was the other members of the committee, Middleton says. “I didn’t go in to water the bill down. I made changes to get the bill out of committee.” 

A month after the defeat of his leaders in the primary, Miller signaled that he planned to stay in control of day-to-day business in the chamber. He named a new slate of committee chairs for the 2019 session, even though the general election hadn’t yet occurred. Miller says the picks showed that the Democratic caucus valued the leadership of women and minorities during an election cycle when both groups flexed their muscles. The two “money” committees would be run by women for the first time. Sen. Delores Kelley, who will now lead the finance committee, is African-American as well. “Is Mike Miller weakened? No. No,” says Mileah Kromer, a political science associate professor at Goucher College. “There was a second that people thought Mike Miller lost a lot of power. Then they said, ‘Oh good, I’m the new committee chair.’”


“Miller and I are both in some ways very close to where the average Maryland voter is [despite] some enthusiasm from our newly elected friends on the left,” says Gov. Larry Hogan, center. (AP)

Maryland Republicans don’t have a lot of victories to get excited about these days, with one very big exception: Hogan’s double-digit win over Ben Jealous, a progressive Democrat who faced him in November. It was an especially noteworthy win coming at the same time that Democrats nationwide made gains at all levels of government in the midterm election amid dissatisfaction with President Trump. Hogan became the first Republican to win two terms as Maryland governor since 1954, running a campaign that appealed to moderates. “Progressives,” the governor says, “drastically overestimate how progressive and how liberal the voters of the state are. An overwhelming majority self-identify as moderates. That’s why I won a convincing victory in a blue wave.”

But Hogan’s ability to set the agenda in Annapolis is frustrated by the fact that there are so many Democrats in both chambers of the legislature that they can override his vetoes almost at will. The state Republican Party tried to change that last fall by chipping away at Democrats’ veto-proof majority in the Senate. The decision to focus on the upper chamber was not directed at Miller personally, says Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. “We were closer to having enough senators to uphold a veto in the Senate than we were in the House. It was a simple mathematical calculation.”

Indeed, the math was straightforward: Republicans needed five more seats to block any Democratic veto overrides. Thus, the “Drive for Five” was born, and Miller, who had to defend his left flank in June, was now fighting off an attack from the right. “The state party was focused on the Drive for Five. It wasn’t my idea, but I did try to help those guys,” the governor says. But, as Hogan admits, “it was a pretty tough night for Republicans. People were angry with the president, and they took it out on everybody with an ‘R’ next to their name.” 

Everybody except, of course, the governor. So, in a bit of political jiu-jitsu, Miller and his team determined that one of the best ways to sell their own candidates was to use Hogan, too. In a politically dicey move, the Maryland Democratic Senate Caucus Committee, a group controlled by Miller, sent a glossy mailer in support of one embattled Democrat showing her sitting next to Hogan at a bill signing ceremony. “Different political parties, same goal. Kathy Klausmeier is working with Gov. Hogan for a better Baltimore County,” the flyer read. But Hogan, of course, endorsed her Republican opponent.

Miller says his campaign team had little choice but to tack to the middle. In early fall, their polls showed a generic Democrat winning Klausmeier’s seat by a single percentage point. Then came the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. Afterward, the Democrat in the district was trailing by 14 points. Meanwhile, Hogan was leading Jealous in the same district by 46 points. “I’m trying to elect a Democratic state senator,” Miller recalls, “and the top of the ticket is losing by 46 points in that same district. It was very challenging.”

Miller wasn’t directly involved in the decision, which was left to his campaign staff, but he says his only regret about the mailer is that it was “premature” and generated unwanted attention in the press. “I would have done it differently, but I support the message,” he says.

Klausmeier held on to the seat. In fact, Senate Democrats had a net loss of only one seat to a Republican. The election results put Miller right back in the middle, between a popular Republican governor and emboldened progressives. That seems to suit Hogan. “I might be a right-of-center moderate,” says the governor. “He’s probably a left-of-center moderate. But Miller and I are both in some ways very close to where the average Maryland voter is [despite] some enthusiasm from our newly elected friends on the left.”

Miller and Hogan also have the benefit of knowing each other for a long time. They met when Miller was 18 years old and Hogan was 5. Despite his Democratic background, Miller’s first job in politics was driving around a Republican candidate for governor and family friend in 1962. Hogan’s father was working on the campaign, too. Miller and Hogan later worked together again when Hogan was part of an earlier Republican administration.

Despite their rapport and their similar political philosophies, Miller insists that Democrats need their veto-proof majority to keep Hogan in check. Since Hogan has never held public office before, Miller fears that the governor's second term will be like that of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who turned, Miller says, “from a moderate Republican to a raving, red dog Republican in his second term. He was focusing more on conservative Republican policy than he was on governing the state of New Jersey.”

In the coming year, Democrats want to increase funding for public education, and make sure that money goes toward the urban areas that most need it, Miller says. He worries that Hogan will devote more of the money to suburban or rural schools, because that’s where Hogan’s base of voters is strongest. 

But Miller, ever the historian, is mindful of how precarious power can be, whether it’s his or anyone else’s. “I stand every day on the spot where the oldest surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence stood. He was Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” Miller says in his office, just steps from the room where George Washington gave up his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army. “[Carroll] was president of the Senate. He helped found our state, he helped found our nation, and he was voted out of office in 1800 right here in the capital city of Annapolis.” Carroll was a Federalist when people began to support Thomas Jefferson and his view that the national government’s powers should be limited. “It was a huge revolution, massive change,” Miller says. “If you’re a historian like I am, times change but the people don’t. They make the same mistakes over and over again.” 

It’s clear Miller has gleaned at least one lesson from Carroll’s story and dozens of others like it: to always be ready to respond when revolutions or massive changes are afoot.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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