Md.'s man in the middle Politics: While others run for governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sees himself saving the state from ruinous fiscal policy.

March 03, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller sees himself this year as the man in the middle, saving Maryland from ruinous policy driven by raw politics.

With House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Gov. Parris N. Glendening preparing to oppose each other in a 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary, the burly Miller stands between them as mediating statesman.

The dueling candidates want a 10 percent income tax cut, and even as he proposes to reduce revenue, Glendening wants to spend more on college scholarships, aid to schools and health care.

Miller may try to block it all, tax cuts and spending, if he finds the cost too high -- and he's made it clear that he's skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that he has suggested that putting slot machines at Maryland's racetracks might be the only way to pay for a tax cut and save the state's racing industry.

"The person who is not running [for governor] has to take the most unpopular positions, the more responsible positions," he says. "We have to put egos and political ambitions aside and decide what's best for the state."

In personal and political style, the Prince George's County Democrat might seem an unlikely candidate to be the imposer of restraint. Of the three top State House leaders, Miller has been the most colorful -- a country music lover, a rabid sports fan, an aggressively undisciplined talker who once described Baltimore, a citadel of his party's strength, as "s---."

But he has always been a paradoxical figure: A nearly reverential student of Maryland history, he speaks with passion of a senator's responsibility to the past and to the future.

"He's concerned this year that we not overreach and overpromise," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chair of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"It bothers him that the legislature might vote for something that is popular but not in the best interests of the state."

Thomas Vincent Mike Miller might seem out of place as political brakeman.

Of the top three State House leaders -- Taylor, Glendening and Miller -- he has been devoted to the political gamesmanship that seems to be in the air and water of Prince George's County.

Since 1970, when he was elected to the House of Delegates, Miller has prospered politically as a tough pol, a nonstop schmoozer at volunteer fire stations and legion halls -- the good old boys' good old boy.

So learned is he on the music of his youth that he can recite the songs and artists on the flip sides of major hit records, an expertise he willingly demonstrates. The 54-year-old senator lifts weights to the sounds of Patsy Cline.

On some notable occasions, his love of talk has landed him in lasting trouble. In Baltimore for a fund-raiser several years ago, he made the infamous comment referring to the city as fecal matter, a place headed into the dumper. That moment of candor, coming when he thought a television camera was not running, seemed to define a man not really serious about his future.

Few in Annapolis were shocked to learn that the Senate president had embarrassed himself, given his back-slapping disdain for the politically correct.

Working from that reputation, some thought his budget-balancing, slots-at-the-racetracks proposal this year was classic Miller: definitely provocative, possibly mischievous, maybe even serious.

To some, Miller's proposal to tie a tax cut to legislation allowing slot machines seemed nothing more than a way to irritate Glendening, who has promised to veto any gambling bill for the rest of his tenure.

But Miller was attempting to focus attention on fiscal reality: Unless new revenue is found, he believes, a 10 percent tax cut is unaffordable.

He finds Glendening's promise of a veto abominable, designed to show personal strength to voters at the expense of the state's fiscal health.

"In Delaware," he says, "a pontificating governor did the same thing, and all the while he wanted exactly what the Legislature was doing" in legalizing slots.

With pressing financial needs, Miller says, slots and casinos should be debated openly and vigorously by the General Assembly.

"I'm not a slots proponent," he says, "but they are an alternative."

King of consensus

Miller often has been content to see others make the soaring new proposals, leaving some observers to conclude that he has no ideas. He seems to them a passionate, short-distance runner with no vision beyond "the mud and the blood" of the insider's game he has mastered.

To others, he is the General Assembly's king of consensus, a man whose occasionally uproarious persona veils a keen strategic view of the interplay between individuals, committee chairs, the Senate, the House of Delegates and the governor's office.

And, here, the irony of his current role redoubles.

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