Josh Kurtz: Mike Miller’s Dilemma

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By: Josh Kurtz 

At first glance – and maybe even at second and third glance – it’s a no-brainer: A Harvard-educated constitutional scholar vs. a guy who advertises his ability to win dog bite cases prominently on his law firm website.

Put another way, it’s a choice between a lawyer who wrote a best-selling book about the Supreme Court and a lawmaker who introduced a bill that would have prevented the wife of an Annapolis lobbyist from serving on the Baltimore County school board because the lawmaker didn’t like a natural gas pipeline project in his neighborhood that the lobbyist’s firm was promoting.

This is the choice state Senate President Mike Miller (D) is facing as he ponders a successor to Brian Frosh (D) – who is all but certain to be elected Attorney General in November – as chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

By all accounts, the battle is between Montgomery County Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), an American University law professor and constitutional scholar, and Baltimore County Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D), the trial lawyer and pipeline foe.

But Miller’s decision isn’t as easy as one might expect given the two contenders’ credentials, because this is not an academic exercise – and the chairmanship of JPR is anything but an academic position. In fact, it’s become a major dilemma for Miller, the longest-serving Senate president on Planet Earth who once held the JPR gavel himself – a dilemma with depth and sweep, taking in such issues as campaign finance, ideology, political diplomacy, the still-lagging power and influence of Montgomery County in Annapolis, the merits of real-world experience vs. scholarship, and the internal politics of the state Senate.

Given all these factors, Zirkin isn’t such an implausible candidate after all.

One of Miller’s chief worries is apparently whether he can afford to slight Montgomery County, the state’s largest jurisdiction, which would be without a chairman of a major Senate committee if Zirkin got the nod. But the answer, for anyone who has been paying attention to the State House for any length of time, should be pretty obvious: Sure he can.

The only thing Miller has to fear is fear itself – and maybe a nasty editorial or two in The Washington Post. What, he’s anticipating the wrath of Ike Leggett, the very model of a modern diplomatic Montgomery County executive? He’s worrying the county’s relatively inexperienced Senate delegation will rise up in righteous indignation and gum up the works of the chamber, or start throwing its weight around at Democratic caucus meetings? Don’t bet on it.

Montgomery County was without a major Senate committee chairman from 1995 to 2002, and no one outside the county gave it a second thought. (Of course, given the orientation of Montgomery voters toward federal rather than state affairs, hardly anyone in the county gave it a second thought, either.) During that period, only then-Sen. Ida Ruben (D), who was chairwoman of the Montgomery delegation and had been serving in Annapolis since the mid-1970’s, had any substantive titles at all: She was vice chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and eventually became Senate president pro tem, a largely ceremonial post. At the same time, two Baltimore City senators held gavels – one doubled as majority leader – and a Baltimore County lawmaker held a third (there are only four major committees in the chamber).

If Miller chooses Zirkin over Raskin, he can always throw Montgomery County a bone. He can make Raskin majority leader, or better still, from his perspective, he can give that job to Sen. Nancy King (D), an undisputed loyalist.

Miller has other reasons to prefer Zirkin. Here are 108,000 of them: That’s the amount of money Zirkin has contributed to fellow Senate Democrats, and the Maryland Senate Democratic slate, and open-seat Democratic contenders, in the last several months. Raskin, by contrast, has funneled $10,750 to current or aspiring future colleagues.

Of course, the notion that a lawmaker could buy himself a chairmanship has got to make any presiding officer of a legislative chamber a little queasy – even a gimlet-eyed and seasoned practitioner like Mike Miller. But Miller, if he’s looking for them, has other reasons to tap Zirkin over Raskin.

One is the fact that Zirkin has a real-live legal practice. This undoubtedly appeals to Miller, who has been practicing law himself since 1967, when Raskin was entering kindergarten and Zirkin wasn't even a gleam in his father's eye. Frosh, and his immediate predecessor as JPR chairman, the late Cecil County Sen. Walter Baker (D), were also shingle-hanging attorneys. Dog bites, drunk driving, criminal defense and divorce are the bedrocks of Zirkin’s practice – the very topics that dominate JPR’s agenda in any given year. Lofty constitutional colloquies are a rarity in the stuffy and dimly-lit JPR hearing room.

And then there’s the question of ideology. Raskin, with the possible exception of Prince George’s County Sen. Paul Pinsky (D), is the most liberal member of the chamber. Is Miller, who has had to swallow gay marriage and the repeal of capital punishment in recent years, ready, in what could well be his last term as Senate president, to hand over the JPR gavel to a guy who used to be counsel to the Rainbow Coalition?

Brian Frosh was plenty liberal, but he was mild-mannered to a fault; Miller and Frosh figured out how to co-exist in part because Frosh was such a gentleman. Raskin is a nice guy, too, and has proven to be plenty respectful of Miller – and equally respectful of the institution. But it’s easy enough to imagine that Miller might worry a little about Raskin freelancing too much if he becomes chairman. Without Miller running the show, the Senate automatically becomes a more liberal place. 

Bobby Zirkin is a little closer to the current center of the Senate chamber philosophically. He is a skillful lawmaker and not without academic credentials of his own: a BA from Johns Hopkins and a law degree from Georgetown.

But he’s ambitious and calculating and might not win any popularity contests in Annapolis. And many Democrats are rightfully steamed that he endorsed his Republican colleague, Allan Kittleman, in the Howard County executive election over Democrat Courtney Watson (for the record, Baltimore City Sen. Lisa Gladden, the vice chairwoman of JPR, is also backing Kittleman).  

So this is what’s at stake for the state, and the Senate, and Mike Miller. The wily Senate president, no doubt, has two dozen other considerations in his head.

Last year brought loud rumors that Zirkin was about ready to retire from the legislature after four terms. Then, abruptly, he announced his reelection plans. Right away, some Annapolis observers wondered whether the fix was in – and if he had been persuaded to stay with the promise that he could succeed Frosh in 2015.

In a perfect world, Jamie Raskin – brilliant, dynamic, progressive, compassionate, a masterful debater on the Senate floor with a host of legislative and broader political achievements – would be the next chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. But Annapolis isn’t a perfect world – far from it.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.