Flashback: Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers

By Adam Pagnucco.

With the retirement of Senator Mike Miller, who ruled the Maryland Senate for decades, many stories are being told of his long tenure. This is one of many records he holds: more stories are told about Mike Miller than any other Maryland politician, hands down. My contribution comes from the archives of Seventh State’s predecessor and our first blog, Maryland Politics Watch. It relates what happened the first time I met Miller.

It was January 2008. Believe it or not, there were many more state and local politics blogs back then than there are now. (David Lublin, Just Up the Pike’s Dan Reed and I are some of the rare survivors.) Blogs were new back then and they were starting to get the attention of politicians and the mainstream press. So then-Senator Rich Madaleno convened a group of us to interview the Senate President on the record in Annapolis. Besides Miller and Madaleno, Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Kumar Barve also attended.

I was nervous as hell. This was Mike Miller after all! I had heard the stories of how he would chew out reporters when he thought they were wrong. I knew how powerful he was. Here was a man who was elected to the legislature when I was less than a year old and became Senate President when I was a bass guitarist in a high school rock band. He knew more about Maryland politics than the rest of Annapolis put together, much less a rookie blogger like me. So I put on my best suit and my favorite tie and tried to act like I knew I what I was talking about. I hope I amused him!

The passage I reprint below comes from a three-part series I wrote called “Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers.” The issues we discussed are long settled but were hot back then: the 2007 special session, slots, drivers licenses for immigrants, comparing Governors Ehrlich and O’Malley and so on. The interesting thing about the discussion is that it shows how Miller dealt with the media. Most politicians are careful, even guarded, when they are on the record with the press. They leave themselves wiggle room. They avoid antagonizing key groups. They might strategically antagonize some others. (How many Democrats are delighted to take on the gun lobby?) They speak in generalities. You know the drill. It’s politico-speak.

That was not Mike Miller’s way. He spoke in direct, sometimes graphic language. His positions were stark and understandable to everyone. His policy positions were often stated in provocative terms. (You don’t like slots? Fine. How would YOU pay for schools??) The press didn’t have to ask him a question twelve different ways to get something interesting from him. He would get right to the point with a pithy quote – sometimes without even having to be asked. Reporters may not have liked being called out from the rostrum as he sometimes did, but he made their jobs easier by explaining his side of the story in simple terms readily grasped by readers.

Why was Miller, the ultimate politician, so different from other politicians in dealing with press? First, Miller was unusual in that he was absolutely secure in both his Senate seat and his hold on the Senate presidency. Most politicians feel at least some insecurity related to their electoral prospects but not Miller. He could fire at will. Second, Miller was a busy fellow and he did not have time – or any appreciation – for BS. His personality was direct, sometimes to a fault, and he made no effort to adjust that for politics. Third, Miller was often doing his caucus members a favor by being so blunt in the newspaper. Suppose Senator X wanted to pass a bill badly and Miller said it was dead in the Baltimore Sun. No one blamed X for not rounding up the votes; he could say, “Mike Miller killed my bill.” That made life easier for X and no amount of heat could affect the Senate President. He would just go right on being Mike Miller – a role he created and no one else could play!

We may have a few more things to say about the Senate President, but for now, I’ll reprint this column from January 2008. And I’ll leave you with this: whatever you think of him, let’s all recognize that there will never, ever, EVER be another Mike Miller.


Mike Miller Meets the Bloggers, Part Two

In Part One, we laid the scene for you: on one side of the table sat the fearsome, powerful old bull, the indomitable Senate President Mike Miller. On the other side sat a gangly, geeky band of bloggers, united only by their common desire for a post-meeting trip to Ram’s Head Tavern.

A few comments on the Senate President. For more than twenty years, Mike Miller has reigned over the Senate with a gregarious combination of ego, fear and patronage. His personal magnetism is so overwhelming that he could likely charm a bird out of its nest and onto his open palm. But if the bird voted the wrong way on a must-have bill, the hapless creature would be quickly crushed and tossed to the back of the Senate chamber. This demonstrates the Miller Rule, which is a simple one: “Work with me and prosper. Work against me and suffer.” Most Democratic Senators respond to this rule predictably, although there have been exceptions.

We asked Miller a lot of questions, and he gave us a lot of answers. For the benefit of our readers, I did my best to keep up with the exchange. Following are the Senate President’s responses to a few of our prods and pokings. If anyone else in the room recollects it differently, please comment and we’ll adjust the record.

On Governor Ehrlich
A few people remember that at the beginning of Governor Ehrlich’s term, Miller was ready to establish a pragmatic working relationship with him. But that approach ran into problems. “Ehrlich was a nice guy, but he didn’t work, and the state suffered,” Miller grumbled. He was “surrounded by yes-men” and rarely came out of his office. “All he did was put bandages on things!” The old warhorse was clearly relieved to see him gone.

On Governor O’Malley
Miller gave O’Malley lavish credit for moving to act on a deficit that he inherited, even if it cost him politically. “O’Malley knew his numbers would go in the toilet no matter what he did, so he did the right thing.” Miller attacked some of the Governor’s opponents, criticizing them for being “mean-spirited” and spreading rumors. “The Governor is a very progressive person,” Miller insisted. But he warned, “This Governor, in order to get his numbers up, will have to do some things you won’t like.” As an example, he mentioned a new emphasis on crime prevention, not always the highest priority of liberals.

On Slots
As perhaps the greatest champion of slots in the state, Miller’s views are well-known. “We have got to have that money!” he cried. The Senate President predicted that a possible recession would hurt tax revenues, thereby making slots money all the more necessary. “We need to get the slots bill passed whether you like it or you don’t like it!” Miller thundered. So in case you were wondering if Mike Miller had changed his mind on slots, the answer is NOPE!

On Transit
I asked Miller if he had a choice to fund the Washington suburbs’ Purple Line or Baltimore’s Red Line, but not both, which of the two he would pick. I was sure he would dodge this one, but to his credit, he did not. “The Purple Line!” he declared. “You know, I was a University of Maryland – College Park graduate.” Miller pointed out that he proposed a 12-cent gas tax last year but he could not round up enough votes for it. “We need to move forward as quickly as we can on mass transit.”

On Illegal Immigration
“There aren’t more than 2% of the people that understand immigration,” Miller snorted. “If you crack down on illegal immigrants too much, they’ll just bring their families over here.” The Senate President does not support the draconian measures implemented in parts of Virginia, saying, “John McCain tells the truth on this issue.” As for drivers licenses, Miller says, “The Governor has spoken on this. He considers this a national security matter. It’s a tough issue.” Miller did not contest the Governor’s decision to abide by the federal RealID law and end the state’s practice of issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.

On the Regressive Nature of the Special Session Tax Package
Regular readers will recall how I criticized the Senate President for the regressive character of the special session tax package. Leaping into the jaws of the lion, I asked him the following question:

“The tax package that was passed by the special session collected the majority of its revenues from raising the regressive sales tax. If you could have that one back and do it over, would you have taxed the rich a bit more to give the working people a break?”

Miller did not back down from the sales tax. He described it as “the most regressive but also the most acceptable” of the taxes, claiming that he received little protest on it. “But I wish I could have had more from the income tax.” Miller noted, accurately, that part of the Montgomery County delegation, backed by their County Executive, pushed back against the Governor’s rate increase for the top income tax brackets, thereby limiting the legislature’s ability to raise them. “You need 24 votes to pass something through the Senate and I didn’t have the votes to spare!” For the record, let’s stipulate that nobody – absolutely nobody – knows more about getting 24 votes in the Maryland Senate than Mike Miller.

The Senate President has a point and perhaps I was unfair with him. It is true that a substantial portion of MoCo legislators pushed back against the top income tax rate hikes but did not criticize the sales tax. If that part of the MoCo delegation did not protest the tax hikes on the rich, there would have been less need to rely on the more regressive elements of the package. And who knows? Perhaps there would have been less pressure to resort to the much-hated computer services tax.

So while I don’t agree with Miller’s assertion that the sales tax increase is in any way “acceptable,” I will no longer criticize him as primarily responsible for encouraging regressivity in the tax package. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around for that.

On the Computer Services Tax
“The computer tax is not a good tax, but it’s $200 million and I’m going to fight to keep it!” The principal reason for keeping it? “No one can agree on a replacement.”

So other than David Lublin’s Big Question, which I’ll address in Part Three, that’s what I have from Mike Miller. Even though many liberals occasionally disagree with the Senate President, let’s give him his due. He implemented a tough agenda of deficit reduction on the Governor’s behalf. He is more straightforward in answering questions than most politicians. And he keeps a lid on the natural parochialism that might otherwise prevail in the Senate through a hardened mix of guile, intimidation and pragmatism. With a weaker Senate leader, the special session may very well have failed and the need to raise taxes this year would be much greater. So you may not like Mike Miller. But you should respect him.

Even though Senator Jamie Raskin of District 20 (Silver Spring/Takoma Park) attended our blogger fest, we did not flay him as we did his colleagues. In Part Three, you’ll hear from House Majority Leader Kumar Barve.