Shortly after Election Day eight years ago, Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, president of Maryland’s State Senate, said his just-won tenth term in the General Assembly would be his last. The then 63-year-old Democrat was worn out from tangling with Republican governor Robert Ehrlich and still haunted by criticism for having contacted judges ruling on a 2002 legislative redistricting plan. Miller soon thought better of stepping down. Announcing his 2014 run, he told reporters that his wife “would just as soon I was down here instead of bothering her.”
Larry Hogan, Maryland’s new Republican governor, may soon recognize the feeling. A newbie to elective office, he faces a rejuvenated Miller, who, backed by veto-proof Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Delegates, wields nearly untrammeled power. Some observers call him the shadow governor.
“I’m not sure I would say ‘shadow,’” laughs Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
Miller insists his leadership is bipartisan and laissez-faire. “I govern like a jockey on a horse,” he says. “I’m very loose on the reins.”
But he also knows how to get his way. In 2012, as legislators worked frantically to finish the state’s $37-billion budget, Miller forced an adjournment, unleashing a series of punishing automatic cuts. The maneuver impelled then governor Martin O’Malley to call two special legislative sessions to pass a budget and approve a casino to be built near Miller’s boyhood home in Prince George’s County (and close to his family’s food-and-beverage distributorship).
“He was down, flat out on the canvas,” recalls Brian Frosh, Maryland’s newly elected attorney general and a state senator for much of Miller’s reign. “The next thing you know, his hand is being raised by the referees.”
And that’s when a fellow Democrat was governor. After Ehrlich took office in 2003, Miller tightened the reins, refusing to confirm Ehrlich’s environment secretary. There were bitter tax fights. Ehrlich was a one-termer.
Miller recognizes that Hogan’s victory represented a cry for change. But he says, “There are issues we’re not going to budge on—education, health care, the environment.” He is less likely to make a stand for the planned Purple Line linking Bethesda to New Carrollton.
Miller says he and Hogan have been speaking frequently. “He was just here today,” Miller said a few weeks before Hogan’s inauguration, adding, “Neither of us had on ties.” They’ve chatted about the $700-million budget shortfall and about cabinet picks and other appointees.
Frosh thinks the two can avoid all-out war: “Hogan will figure out what he has to do to keep the peace.” But Miller’s aim, the attorney general says, will likely be the same: “He’ll be looking for a way to elect a Democrat the next time.”
Miranda S. Spivack (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran political reporter in Washington.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.