Thomas V. Mike Miller, a major force in Maryland politics for decades and the nation's longest-serving state Senate president, has died, his family said. He was 78.
A Democrat, he was first elected Maryland Senate president in 1987. He stepped down from the leadership position in 2019 as he battled Stage 4 prostate cancer and resigned from his Senate seat in December.
In a nod to Miller’s stature, one of the Senate’s office buildings already carried his name when he wasn’t even halfway through his unprecedented tenure.
“It is impossible to think of the Maryland Senate and not think of Mike — not just because of his historical longevity — but because each member of the Senate has his or her own Mike story,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson, Miller's successor. “Whether it’s the senator who he quietly consoled through family matters, the senator who he mentored to compromise and pass legislation, or those who experienced the personal care of Mike to truly listen to their concerns.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, reflected on Miller's tireless dedication to his state.
“Serving the people of our great state was Mike Miller’s life’s work, and he did so with unrelenting passion and courage for a remarkable 50 years. Even as he waged a hard-fought battle with cancer, I was blessed to continue to benefit from Mike’s wisdom and trademark humor. He was, in every sense, a lion of the Senate," Hogan said.
A lawyer whose district included parts of Prince George’s County near the nation’s capital brought a big personality to Annapolis. He won his first election to the House of Delegates in 1970 and moved to the Senate four years later. An astute observer of state politics, he used his acumen to muscle through bills, but he also could willingly acquiesce to major legislation he opposed. For example, he didn’t support same-sex marriage but allowed the bill to come to the Senate floor in 2012.
“Am I on the wrong side of history? As a historian, there’s no doubt about it, but I’ll deal with that in my own mind,” he said when the Senate gave the bill final passage.
Miller maintained a collegial presence in the Senate. With large portraits of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence hanging on the Senate’s walls, he revered his state’s history, and often brought the subject up in conversation or debate. Miller maintained a long-held passion for higher education in Maryland, particularly the University of Maryland, College Park, his alma mater. The administration building at the university was named after him last year.
Miller also was prone to speaking his mind, whether with reporters who gathered to talk to him regularly after the Senate took a break for the day or publicly at an event. Sometimes, his unrestrained comments landed him in trouble. In 1989, he told a Washington television reporter that Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, was a “ghetto” and a “war zone.” Some suggested the comments ended his prospects of ever becoming governor.
But even his most brash comments didn’t seem to hurt him significantly on Election Day or during the annual votes by the Senate’s 47 members at the start of each legislative session in January to keep him at the helm of the chamber for 32 years. He was Senate president over the span of five governors, from Democrat William Donald Schaefer to Hogan.
He had a knack for colorful political theater. Once, while discussing a tough special session in 2007, he pulled back his suit jacket and showed reporters where red ink from a pen had leaked, as if he were bleeding. That session became a three-week grind to pass tax increases and a constitutional amendment to allow five casinos with slot machines — a long-debated proposal Miller supported to raise state revenue. Maryland voters went on to approve the constitutional amendment allowing casinos in 2008, as well as an expansion four years later to add table games and what would become MGM National Harbor near the nation’s capital.
That happened with a strong push from the Senate president, who noted in later years that the state’s six casinos would be part of his legacy.
Miller could be a heavyweight political brawler and power broker who knew how to play well to the crowd. He once declared at a 2006 luncheon with fellow Democrats that they would put Republicans “in the ground” in the upcoming election.
Miller kept a keen eye on politics statewide, particularly state Senate races. He regularly presided over a strong Democratic majority in the chamber in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.