The Dealmaker

How Maryland's Senate President, after a big defeat and in his hardest year, engineered his own final victory.

April 17, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

For 17 years, Thomas V. Mike Miller, part charmer, part bully, had had his way as president of the Maryland state Senate. But as the 2003 General Assembly drew to an end, he knew he'd been outmaneuvered by the new boy on the block, the Speaker of the House. As fiercely competitive as his fellow Democrat, Miller was steaming.

And now, a Sunday with only 32 hours to go before the legislative session closed, the 60-year-old master politician was sitting in the Federal-style receiving room of his elegant home on 40 acres overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, sipping a Coke. Several of his five grown children and nine grandchildren had arrived for dinner. Games were everywhere: Brio, Legos, chess, a pool table, many of them gifts from his boisterous, sweet wife, Patti. Earlier, Miller had played golf with his Senate budget committee chairman. And there were more games to be played.

The phone rang. A House lawmaker hoped the Senate president would break a stalemate between the two chambers over bonds for state construction projects. At issue was $12.7 million in projects sought by the House.

"Times are tight," Miller said. "You can't afford these pork-barrel projects." The Senate was not going to agree to the list of House district projects, Miller said, "when we need money for schools." At stake in the standoff: three-quarters of a billion dollars for hospital and school projects.

"If all the bond bills go down," Miller told the caller, "they all go down."

There was nothing better Mike Miller liked than results. As the longest serving state Senate leader in the country, he had dealt with every possible situation except partisan divided government. And he had innate political ability.

Politics is teamwork, he liked to say. And he expected people to play the game.

In this regard, he reminded colleagues of Lyndon Baines Johnson, one of the most masterful strategists ever to lead the U.S. Senate. Only last November, Casper R. Taylor Jr., the newly ousted speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, had sent Miller Volume 3 of Robert Caro's biography of Johnson, Master of the Senate. Miller had written a lovely thank-you. But Miller didn't see himself as Johnson, he told Taylor. Gen. George S. Patton, maybe.

Or Winston Churchill. Or Robert E. Lee. Or Ulysses S. Grant, a mediocre guy who saw an opportunity and seized it. A redneck, Miller called himself; from humble roots, he had done well.

He took what he admired about great historical figures from the thousands of books in his library, reading in his chair facing the fireplace, looking into the woods the British passed through on their way to Bladensburg in the War of 1812.

Reading history helped him see into the future, the battle ahead. And he knew what he was in for: more hard work.

So far, the session was a disaster. Miller had to educate the new governor and deal with the governor's staff, who in his view didn't seem to know what they were doing.

A conservative Democrat from Prince George's and Calvert counties, Miller had allied himself with Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor in 36 years, because their interests dovetailed. Miller for years had supported slots, and Ehrlich had made their passage his priority. Unfortunately, the governor's office had bungled it, and Miller had to do some heavy lifting.

Not only did he order a Senate committee to write its own slots bill, he also muscled the governor's idea through the Senate. The vote, 25-21, was surprisingly close. People in leadership positions, like Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., who represented part of anti-slots Anne Arundel County, risked their seats to support it.

According to DeGrange, Miller didn't lobby him, saying only, "Your friendship is more important than any vote." The Senate president says he also released DeGrange from voting for new taxes, if that would help right him in his district.

None of what Miller did, though, was enough to combat the bad news that rained down on slots daily, with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and others thinking of new ways the governor's idea was flawed. Busch worried about whether slots were good public policy. Miller, seeing a bird in hand, wanted to bring the issue to a vote.

"I'd make suggestions, he brushed them off. It was a campaign on his part," Miller says of Busch. "If you don't like the plan, change it around. Don't do nothing. That was what was so frustrating."

From behind the great mahogany dais in the Senate, Mike Miller could look across the room and know within one or two votes where each member stood on an issue. There were surprises, of course, and for those, he always had a few extra votes.

He liked to buttonhole people or talk on the phone in search of votes. He enjoyed building a consensus. It was tricky. Miller had to calculate the risks for each person before he could ask for a vote. He knew every legislative district and followed every campaign; sometimes he helped finance them with campaign money he didn't need himself.

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