Reflecting on the role of the Maryland State Senate President

Two Baltimore City residents contemplate the future of this office

By: Bobby Moore and Richard DeShay Elliott

As Maryland Senate President Mike Miller announced his cancer diagnosis last week, and given his growing age, we must recognize that the Maryland Senate will choose a new State Senate President in the near future. A new Maryland Senate President will be here before we know it, and it is critically important to have statewide discourse on who will be occupying one of the most influential positions in Annapolis. From the perspective of two current Baltimore City residents, we’d like to offer our thoughts on the current Senate President (Senator Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, Democrat), potential prospects for a new Maryland Senate President, and a high-level policy idea to democratically select the State Senate President, amongst other influential positions, in the future.

Current Leadership – Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller

Senate President Mike Miller represents the 27th District in Calvert County, Maryland and, at 32 years running, he is the longest standing presiding officer in American history. As we reflect on Miller’s tenure as Maryland Senate President, we conclude that he has deliberately neglected the needs of Baltimore City residents. As others characterize him as a “Democrat with social and fiscal conservative tendencies”, we believe that he basically is a “Republican Lite” elected official. He helped write the 1972 bill to describe marriage as between a man and a woman, brought the death penalty to Maryland, supports repressive sentencing policy, and has otherwise kept a nominally blue state quite Republican in terms of policy.

Miller has shown himself to have low-expectations for Baltimore, and has a track record of advocating for tough-on-crimes policies in Baltimore City. In 1989, Miller characterized Baltimore as a “fucking ghetto” and “it is shit”. Immediately after making these comments, Miller laughed and joked, “I hope that you’re not going to play that on tape.”  This tanked his opportunity for statewide office, rightfully so.

Miller vigorously supported SB 122 in 2018, a piece of legislation which included the expansion of mandatory minimums. In January 2019, Dayvon Love from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle directly asked Mike Miller if he would be opposed to any additional expanded mandatory minimums in Governor Hogan’s crime bill package. Miller responded by saying he supports “do the crime, do the time” for repeat offenders, and insinuated that the question was Baltimore-centric and that he needed to take into considerations the other jurisdictions in Maryland. Additionally,  in response to rising crime reports in Baltimore City in October 2018, Miller directly asked Mayor Pugh, “what is the plan to maximize police presence in communities most battered by crime?” Most recently, in December 2018, Senator Miller, once again from Calvert County, also advocated for the funding of a private police force at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore City as a personal priority.

We take deep offense to Miller’s 1989 comments and feel that it characterizes the residents of Baltimore City as inferior and incapable. We call on him to apologize for those statements, regardless if they were made in 1989. We believe that SB 122, and any other mandatory minimum legislation, is regressive, punitive, and racist and will disproportionately and negatively affect communities of color in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland. We believe that solely “maximizing police presence in Baltimore City” is a disconnected, knee-jerk, tough-on-crime reaction which will be non-effective in reducing crime in Baltimore City and worsen the opinion of police and judges among those targeted by these repressive sentences. We also find it interesting that Senator Mike Miller, once again from Calvert County, feels the need to prioritize a private police force at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore City, and has not shown any consideration on how that private police force would be held accountable or the effect on the neighboring communities of color.

 The Prospect of a New Maryland Senate President

 Given the neglect shown for Baltimore City and vulnerable populations across our state by Miller routinely denying, undercutting, and scapegoating legislation that would benefit Baltimore City residents, we believe that the next Maryland Senate President should come from Baltimore City.

We need to remind ourselves of the current Maryland and Baltimore City demographics in assessing a possible next Maryland Senate President. Nearly 31% of the Maryland resident population is blackNearly 64% of Baltimore City residents are black. In recognizing the significant black population in Maryland and Baltimore City, we believe that it is of utmost importance to have a Maryland Senate President who demographically reflects those populations and can bring a new vision to our state. The Maryland Democratic establishment has also routinely favored white candidates over black candidates, such as U.S. Senate races like Donna Edwards vs. Chris Van Hollen and Kweisi Mfume vs. Ben Cardin. We have never had a black Marylander in such an influential position: this is a shame, especially in a state that is almost as black as Mississippi. We have never had a woman elected to any similar position either, excluding Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as the Lieutenant Governor alongside 1994-2002 Governor Parris Glendenning.

As some Baltimore communities are among the most vulnerable in the state, we need a Maryland Senate President who approaches crime and poverty (across the state of Maryland and particularly in Baltimore) from an economic justice, social justice, restorative criminal justice, and public health perspective. We need a Senate President who does not endorse bringing back the 90’s tough-on-crime policies, but who will fight crime by encouraging investments in community-based crime reduction that is already working (i.e. Safe Streets) and promoting education & job pathways to reduce recidivism. We do not need a State Senate President who returns Senator Bobby Zirkin to his position as Chair of Judicial Proceedings.

Our next Maryland Senate President should have a track record of prioritizing the needs of their constituencies, and in particular vulnerable communities, over marching orders from the establishment machine, Big Money lobbyists, and wealthy campaign contributors. Too often, we see Maryland State Democratic Party elected officials follow the marching orders of the Democratic Party leadership in Annapolis, even though it may not be advantageous for the needs of their constituents. Simply put, we don’t need a puppet: we demand an independent-minded Progressive Democrat. People power should outweigh money power with the next State Senate President.

Finally, our next Maryland Senate President needs to embody the agenda of the revived progressive movement in Maryland. Maryland Senate leadership needs to move beyond the “fiscally and socially conservative Democrat” (aka Republican Lite) leadership era of Senator Mike Miller. There’s no excuse for a $15 minimum wage bill to not have passed by now, alongside a whole host of bills that should have already passed, with a 100-year Democratic supermajority in both houses. Our next Senate President should dream big and fight to uplift the lowest among us with public policy.

As we take the factors listed above into consideration, we believe that Senator Jill P. Carter (District 41) or Senator Mary Washington (District 43) from Baltimore City would be exemplary Maryland Senate Presidents in the future.

Senator Jill P. Carter (District 41)

Now Senator Carter, a black woman from Baltimore who served as a Maryland Delegate from 2002 through 2017, has an extensive record on protecting some of the most vulnerable populations in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland. She is is also a part of a civil rights dynasty in Baltimore as her father was civil rights leader Walter P. Carter. Defying the mainstream Democratic Party, Carter vigorously spoke out against illegal and unconstitutional police arrests which disproportionately targeted communities of color in Baltimore City, as well as opposed former mainstream Democrat Governor Martin O’Malley by fighting against the creation of a Baltimore City Juvenile Detention Center in 2012.  In 2018, Senator Carter ran a progressive, grassroots campaign to defeat former Governor Martin O’Malley’s son-in-law, JD Merrill. Merrill raised over $70,000 and received donations from prominent mainstream Democrats like that of former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley ($6,000), State Senator Bill Ferguson ($4,000),  State Delegate Brooke Lierman ($100), and former State Delegate Bill Romani ($100).

Senator Mary Washington (District 43)

Senator Washington, the first black woman LGBT member in the Maryland General Assembly, has spent over twenty years in Baltimore as an activist and legislator. She served as a Maryland Delegate since 2011 before recently elected to the Maryland Senate in 2019. She was a former House Whip, but lost the position as she emphasized to “vote your conscience” to her Democratic Party colleagues. Washington successfully executed a grassroots, progressive campaign to oust long-time Democratic Party establishment incumbent Joan Carter Conway, who had previously been the State Senator since 1998 and raised over $120,000 this past cycle. Conway received many large donations from several mainstream establishment Democrats like Mayor Catherine Pugh ($6,000), State Senator Bobby Zirkin ($2000), Baltimore City Council President Jack Young ($4,000), former State Senator Nathaniel Oaks ($3,000), former Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake ($2000), former Baltimore City Mayor Kurt Schmoke ($500), and U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen ($2000), as well as a $1,000 donation from the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) of Baltimore City. As the Chair of the Education, Health, and Environmental Chair Committee, Conway routinely shelved progressive legislation, stole credit for then-Delegate Washington’s bills by using her establishment credit to pass them quickly, and was fervently opposed to the fracking ban until it already had the votes.

In March 2018, then-Delegate Washington broke from the majority of her Democratic Party colleagues, including many Baltimore City state elected officials, and did not vote on HB 1029, a bill which included the expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing.  In 2011, Washington sponsored HB 1075, a bill which was developed to end the death penalty in Maryland. Although Mike Miller ended up supporting the death penalty repeal in late 2010 through public pressure, Miller was previously an ardent supporter of the death penalty and brought it to Maryland in 1978.  Miller originally opposed same sex marriage in 2012, before succumbing to public pressure and eventually supporting it. Washington always supported same-sex marriage and pushed for it in 2012. She also introduced bills to legalize marijuana to fund schools and has been the Annapolis voice on ending home foreclosures due to delinquent water bills. Most recently in December of 2018, Senator Washington was the first and only Baltimore City Democratic Party state elected official to come out against the funding and creation of a private police force at Johns Hopkins University, citing the, “devastating results of unchecked police power in our most vulnerable communities” and that “these policies move us farther away from creating the type of City or State we want to live in, and simply furthers the ‘haves/have-nots’ racial and economic disparities that plague our current systems of education, healthcare, transportation, housing and criminal justice.” Senate President Mike Miller, once again from Calvert County, has claimed the creation of a private police force at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore City as one of his legislative priorities for 2019.

Senator Jill P. Carter or Senator Mary Washington for Maryland Senate President. Current Maryland Senators, where do you stand?

All in all, we believe that Senator Carter and Senator Washington reflect the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, demonstrate a strong independence from the mainstream establishment Democratic Party, have a deep focus on social justice and criminal justice reform, possess extensive experience in the Maryland General Assembly, and are hyper-diligent in prioritizing the needs of some of the most vulnerable populations in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland. Maryland, and Baltimore City, would be extremely lucky if one of these two black women became the next Maryland Senate President. As our next Maryland Senate President, either of these women could drastically change the politics of our state for the better.

Our question to standing Maryland State Senators: With the current election system in place, would you support Senator Carter as Senator Washington as the next Maryland Senate President in the future? If not, who would you support? The public deserves to know who you want running the show in Annapolis.

Re-Evaluating the Process for Electing the Maryland Senate President & Other Marque Positions in the Future

 The Maryland State Senate elected Mike Miller in 1987 and has been served in that role for over thirty-two years. In that time, he has wielded immense power in his role as Maryland Senate President. Targeted redistricting to gerrymander. Attacking political opponents. Using his $1,000,000+ campaign account to buy his lieutenants. Killing, hiding, and watering down progressive legislation. Commanding the politics of Prince George’s County via sample ballots. Controlling committee assignments and party leadership roles.

Senator Mike Miller is, undoubtedly, the most powerful man Maryland has seen in a long time. And we need to reform this position of power as it is thoroughly undemocratic for an individual who simply has the most gold to be the King of Maryland.

To reduce this dynamic, we propose that the election of the Maryland State Senate President, along with House Speaker, have 8-12 year term limits and occur through a vote on the primary ballot. In addition to voting for your Delegate and Senator, you should be able to cast votes for Speaker of the House and Senate President. Democratization of that process will introduce significantly more public insight and awareness. There is no reason that an individual senator, voted in by a few thousand people in one county, be able to maintain so much control for so long without questioning not just his personal power, but the institutional weight of the role he occupies.

Transforming the currently autocratic process, to a truly democratic process, we can have a leader with progressive ideals, political independence, and a strong moral compass to lead our state. Let’s get a true progressive candidate of quality to be the next State Senate President in our great state.

 

Authors

Bobby Moore is a Progressive Democrat, former Baltimore City teacher, and social entrepreneur who resides near Patterson Park in Baltimore City in District 46. He can be followed on Twitter via @BaltimoreBobby3.

Richard Deshay Elliott is a Ph. D candidate at Johns Hopkins University, an electoral fellow for Progressive Maryland, the former campaign manager for Allison Berkowitz (District 7) and director of digital strategy for Allison Galbraith (Maryland’s 1st congressional district). You can find him on Twitter at @RichElliottMD and Facebook.

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