NBT Interview:

Senate President

Thomas V. Mike Miller

If lawmaking followed the rules of basketball, the Maryland Statehouse would be the court. The ball would be your future.

Making the shots and the passes over the next three months are the 188 men and women Marylanders have elected - or allowed by default - to write our laws in Annapolis. From January 14 through April 13, billions in tax dollars - not to mention your liberty and property - are at stake.

In that game, nobody has more power than Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller - who represents parts of Prince George's, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties - is the Michael Jordan of Maryland lawmaking.

The 55-year-old Miller has held a seat in the General Assembly since 1970. That's just over half his lifetime. After only two terms in the House of Delegates, he won election to the smaller and more powerful Senate in 1974. He was elected president of the Senate in 1987, holding the gavel longer than any other Maryland Senate president. That's saying something in a state that's just convened its 412th General Assembly.

The Prince George's County Democrat plays on national courts, as well. He's this year's president of the State Senate Presidents' Forum, the national interest group for his position. Within his party, as chairman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, he organizes nationwide efforts to elect more fellow Democrats to state legislatures.


From behind the counter of the family general store in Clinton, Md., Mike Miller has evolved as President Bill Clinton's man in Maryland. That's quite a distance for two country boys.

NBT spoke to Miller in his plush office on the ground floor of Maryland's historic State Capitol, where he works amidst toy lead soldiers, antique duck decoys and the portraits of powerful men who have gone before him.


Q When your mother was ill, didn't Bill Clinton telephone her?

A When Bill Clinton was campaigning in Maryland in 1992, my mother and I would go to every stop - whether it was in Baltimore or Anne Arundel County or Montgomery County - to meet him. He would always say "hi" to her. When I was at the White House last year at Christmas, he asked about her. I said, "well, she's dying." He started crying. And I started crying.

I know he was thinking about his mother, who'd been dead less than a year. We were in a receiving line, and he was holding my hand. My wife and Hillary had to stand there making small talk while he called for pencil and paper.

The next day the president called my mother and talked to her for 20 minutes. Two days later, she got a handwritten note from the president: "Dear Esther, just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed our conversation."

Bill Clinton's people skills are phenomenal: he really feels your pain. When he's looking at you, there's nobody else in the world in his eyes. He's not like other elected officials.

Q When it comes to politicians, every one has a particular strength. Sticking to Democrats, Bill Clinton is an extremely smooth communicator who sets the standard. Al Gore, whom we know you admire, is a smart, tactical guy. U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt is a strong speaker and one of the best listeners we've ever seen. What's the best thing Mike Miller brings to the table?

A I was most fortunate as being the oldest of 10 children. I had to make sure that the children got along. I had to serve as a babysitter to the younger ones. And then, to avoid the confusion, my mother sent me to work at age 10 with my father in our grocery store, a rural country grocery in southern Maryland. That's where I really got my training. I had the philosophy that you serve your customer; the customer is always right. If it was 7 or 8 o'clock at night and I wanted to go to Teen Club and a customer came in and wanted a gallon of coal oil, I'd go around and pump a gallon of coal oil. Or a bushel of coal or a couple of bales of hay. We sold everything. We sold shoes, shirts, plows, alcohol, shaving jars, feed and fertilizers while serving as a wholesaler for all the small mom-and-pop stores in Southern Maryland.

Q So interacting at a young age with people was important?

A I think it was key. Also the fact that my mother was a New Deal Democrat and my father was a Southern Democrat, a conservative Democrat. So I got a good balance.

Both were very progressive on many issues. My father worked hard; he was a businessman, a banker, he had a trucking company. I'll never forget when Jimmy Carter was running for president - I was working for him - I said "who are you going to vote for, daddy?" He said Jimmy Carter. I said "you know he's going to tax the rich?" He said, "I know that, son, but we made our way and we've got to help others make their way." It shocked me. I was so proud of him.

Q We like to understand how we become who we are. Whose influence led you along your path?

A Several persons, country lawyers of an Atticus Finch type in To Kill a Mockingbird. They came back to their hometowns and served their people, but at the same time they were involved in public service. There was Lansdale Sasscer of Upper Marlboro, a state senator who became a congressman. There was Edward Bagley, a member of the House of Delegates. There was Judge Ernest Loveless, another person who I respected very much.

Q Is it important for politicians and public servants to have a sense of history?

A It's imperative because history repeats itself over and over again. Every civilization has its ups and downs, and we as humans make the same mistakes over and over again. So it's important to know the good points of leaders and their failures as well. I constantly read biographies about the great politicians and the mediocre politicians, too.

Q What's the most recent book you've read?

A It was about James Burns, Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of state. He was a Dixiecrat who switched over and became a Republican. He was a senator from South Carolina during the New Deal.

I never stop reading; I just finished reading Cold Mountain, the first novel of a guy from North Carolina. It's descriptive writing that reminds me a lot of Robert Penn Warren [author of All The King's Men, a fictional account of the assassination of Louisiana's "kingpin" Huey Long].

Q These days legislators are held in very low esteem. Does that trouble you?

A It does very much. I give speeches about it almost every day. I'm also head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, so I'm in charge of electing Democrats around the country and looking where we as Democrats have failed and where we can improve.

Q Do scandals like that of Sen. Larry Young contribute to the public cynicism?

A That, but the bigger contributor is negative advertising. I think it began with Ronald Reagan campaigning against government as the evil, the problem. Now people have found that they can get elected by campaigning against government. Watergate's a factor. And President Kennedy certainly couldn't have withstood today's scrutiny.

Q Let's shift to the future. What will be a short list of issues that will consume most of the energy of this General Assembly?

A Taxes. We'll continue looking at the tax issue. We have a surplus of funds and believe me, it's much harder to legislate when you have a surplus than when you don't have any money. You have a whole lot of people tugging at you.

Pension issues are going to be a huge issue. Maryland right now is 49th out of 50 states in terms of pension benefits. Another key issue this session will be health care for poor people. Also the battle between the counties and the state over further aid to education.

Q Given Gov. Glendening's ardent opposition to slot machines, what will be the sentiments of the General Assembly?

A It's a very complex issue. Certainly, we're not going to do anything this year. I think the House will take it up. What the House is looking for, I'm vigorously opposed to. That's a referendum on gambling in each county. I can just imagine 23 casinos in 23 counties.

I'm confident that nothing will pass this session. But I'm also confident that sooner rather than later, we will have slots at the racetracks. We're losing $400 million a year to Delaware. The public is not for casinos but the public will accept slot machines where gambling is currently taking place.

Q What is it about Parris Glendening? He seems to do a pretty good job, but he doesn't engender the kind of warmth and the kind of public support like a lot of Democrat governors - Howard Dean in Vermont, to name one. Is there something lacking there?

A That's a fascinating question. I find Gov. Glendening a much better governor than he was a [Prince George's] county executive. I was constantly doing battle with him. He was pushing unwanted development in my part of the county. It was very bothersome to me. But I think he got a message from voters when he won by just 6,000 votes.

There wasn't that check and balance in Prince George's County. And he avoided the scrutiny of the press and the local papers. Then, as governor, he came out with a Republican budget with a tax increase and a two percent spending increase. He's also been helped by the economy. Why he doesn't sell personally, I'm not certain. He does not have the people skills that Bill Clinton has. Of course, Al Gore doesn't have those skills, either.

Q What will be the big issue for the Chesapeake Bay this General Assembly?

A The big issue is going to be pfiesteria and mandatory controls on runoff and how we address the issue of disposal of wastes from poultry plants. It's going to be a huge issue, dealing with the chicken farmers on the Eastern Shore.

Q Do you believe we're ready for controls on farm runoff in Maryland?

A The issue is that voluntary controls haven't helped. I don't know that mandatory controls are going to pass this year, but I certainly think they're going to be proposed.

Q Let's switch to national politics for a minute and talk about Al Gore. Dick Gephardt made a big speech recently in which he said that the coming months will feature a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party. As he prepares to run against Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gephardt's message was that in this era of economic expansion, the Democratic Party has not seen to the needs of all of its people. Are you expecting a fight for the soul of your Democratic Party?

A If Dick Gephardt is nominated, we'll lose handily. He's my friend and I admire him, but he is so wedded and so tied to the old Democratic Party that I don't believe he can change. I don't believe he wants to change and, consequently, I don't think he'll be able to reach out to enough people.

QYou're saying Al Gore can?

A Al Gore will have a very difficult time, also.

QOur frame of reference at New Bay Times is Chesapeake Bay. Do you spend much time on or along the Bay?

A Every week. My district is on the Bay and I have property on the Bay, 40 acres in Calvert County. It's woodland with deer and wild turkeys. I go down there every week.

Q What do you do there?

A Pick up sharks' teeth. Walk along the beach and pick up sharks' teeth. I love it. That's all I do. I won't leave until I have 40. I'm not selective; I take the little teenie ones, too. I think anything constitutes a shark's tooth, especially if I have to go home and I need 40.

It's such good therapy. Election day three years ago, I just couldn't take the pressure. So I went down and was picking up the sharks' teeth. Some beachcomber comes up and says, "Don't I know you? Are you supposed to be here today?"

I said this is where I want to be, away from everybody.

Q You found your path as a young man. What strengths do you see in young people today?

A Their strength is that they're better educated than any generation before. The problems in our public schools are real, but they're a myth in terms of the schools of yesteryear being better than schools today. Our dropout rates are down. Our students are computer literate. A higher percentage are going on to college. So I have great hopes for the next generation. The problem is that the smokestack and manufacturing jobs aren't available to those who don't graduate from college. So somehow we have to make sure that everybody gets trained.

Q You and your wife, Patti, have five children and now, after a bountiful 1997, four grandchildren. Is the future as promising for your grandchildren as it was for you?

A I think so. I think that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday. I think we continue to move toward a better relationship between the races. I was in South Carolina last week, and I saw how far blacks have come in the South in terms of running whole cities. I think we're making great progress as a nation.

Q So are we entering 1998 on an upswing?

A I think so. We're recognizing the environment and the need to protect the Chesapeake Bay. The programs we have now were unthinkable 20 years ago. Not just preserving the wetlands but the non-tidal wetlands. We've got the governor of Pennsylvania buying into our pfiesteria program. We've got North Carolina paying attention to what we do.


| Back to Archives |

VolumeVI Number 2
January 15-21, 1998
New Bay Times

| Homepage |