Senate president cements role as a political survivor

State names building for Miller as he starts record 15th year in job

January 09, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Many Marylanders have never heard of him. Even State House insiders can't list more than a handful of his legislative accomplishments.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller continues to secure his place in Annapolis history - as a master of political survival.

This week, the voluble 58-year-old lawmaker from Southern Maryland reaches back-to-back milestones.

Today, hundreds of dignitaries will gather as the new $24 million Senate office building is dedicated in his honor.

Tomorrow, for the 15th January in a row, Miller will step up to preside over the Maryland Senate - as he continues to break his record for holding the presidency, one of the three most powerful jobs in state government.

For a man who once daydreamed about becoming governor or going to Congress, Miller professes to have found his perfect political job. "I could never have envisioned a better role for me in life," he says.

Thoughtful but volcanic, courtly but crude, Miller carefully picks the issues that he will champion.

His alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park, has won hundreds of millions of dollars in new state funding and gained power in large part because of Miller's support. His backing was crucial to winning state aid for new stadiums in Baltimore and his Prince George's County. Maryland deregulated its electric utility industry largely because Miller insisted.

But Miller's more important legacy may well be the many times he set aside his conservative leanings to vote for landmark changes in the law - increases in the income and cigarette taxes, one of the nation's most liberal abortion-rights measures and first-of-its-kind legislation to require trigger locks on handguns.

For a once anti-abortion lawmaker whose district includes tobacco farms and the headquarters of Maryland's only gun manufacturer, those votes were surely difficult. "If you're a leader, it means constantly making sacrifices," Miller says.

But those votes also meshed with the wishes of the often left-leaning Democratic majority in the Senate. And a leader of the Senate can't vote against the wishes of the majority very often and expect to stay in power 15 years.

"He's not driven ideologically, which is probably a good thing," says Baltimore City and County's Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the budget committee. "He doesn't have a particular ax to grind.

"His ax" on any given issue "is what does this do to Democrats?" says Hoffman.

`Hey, I'm trying'

Miller works tirelessly at remaining Senate president. If one of his members is getting married, having a birthday party or burying a parent, Miller is there. More important, he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his Democratic colleagues.

On the floor of the high-ceilinged Senate chamber, he is a frenetic arm-squeezer and back-patter. He also slips easily into frat-boy banter, telling off-color jokes and needling anyone in sight - legislators, lobbyists and reporters - often over a pair of shoes or a tie that he considers insufficiently stylish. Compliment Miller on his impeccable dress and he invariably responds, "Hey, I'm trying."

Until last month, when Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County started a quickly aborted coup attempt, there had been little if any talk of replacing Miller.

Critics say Miller can be vindictive and insensitive, but supporters say he is a superb leader who manages with a light touch that allows others to take the spotlight. One longtime associate says he is the best political mind in Annapolis, able to anticipate early on the messy endgames that decide many legislative issues.

"The guy's a master at knowing which buttons to push," adds Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat.

Miller, who is prone to self-deprecating humor, matter-of-factly acknowledges the special talent that he brings to the job of Senate president. "I often know what people are going to do before it occurs to them," he says.

But he says he was caught off-guard by Bromwell's challenge - a move some say was the natural result of having a president in place for 15 years, blocking the ambitions of many lawmakers below.

When word leaked, Miller got on the phone and quickly concluded that Bromwell's allies had miscalculated their support. Bromwell also counted and quickly backed down.

Miller may yet find a way to punish Bromwell - perhaps by weakening the power of the committee he heads - but says he and Bromwell have gone through far too much in their 18 years in the Senate together to become enemies. "You have to have a burying ground in your mind for the faults of your friends," Miller says. "I expect him to do the same with me."

Small-town boy

Miller, the oldest of 10 children of a successful grocery-store owner, grew up in the crossroads town of Clinton in southern Prince George's County, tobacco country.

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