Josh Kurtz: Miller Time Comes Early

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In most of his 24 years as president of the Maryland Senate — and yes, that’s a record, in case you had any doubts — Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) has largely kept mum about his goals as each legislative session begins.

Let the governor (Miller has overlapped with four) lay out his priorities; let the House speaker (Miller has worked with three) do the same. Miller’s strategy most years is to keep quiet, see what develops, then swoop in at the end, often when the outcome of a big legislative fight is uncertain, to cut a deal.

It’s a very canny approach. It makes a very powerful position (and man) all the more powerful; it leaves Miller’s enemies — and his allies — guessing; and it usually puts him in the driver’s seat at the most critical moments in a legislative session.

So when Miller last week broke with tradition and on the second day of the session told the world that he’d like to see slot machines come to a venue in Prince George’s County, you could hear the alarm bells sound from State Circle to Upper Marlboro. When Miller speaks, especially about developments in his native county, it is hard not to take notice. In fact, you might say Miller was putting a lot of people on notice.

All along, Miller has been a leading cheerleader for slots in Maryland. It was always hard to see where he began and Joe DeFrancis, whose family owned Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks for years, ended. Miller made DeFrancis’ agenda his own. He held political fundraisers at DeFrancis’ tracks. And when Miller, through a national Democratic legislative organization he controlled, decided to funnel extra money to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, DeFrancis dutifully ponied up.

But this is the first anyone has heard of Miller agitating for slots specifically in Prince George’s — even as the state is struggling to get its overall slots program going. Miller mentioned the National Harbor resort, the equestrian center in Upper Marlboro and Rosecroft racetrack as possible sites for slots in the county. Take note, conspiracy theorists: Rosecroft, which already has a boat-load of high-priced, high-powered lobbyists, recently hired another, Gerard Evans, convicted felon and a longtime protégé of Miller’s.

So is this Miller just throwing out a concept? Or does he have a battle plan in mind? For slots to even be considered in Prince George’s, he’ll need to introduce legislation that must go through the county’s House and Senate delegations.

In the various newspaper articles that followed Miller’s pronouncement, lame-duck County Executive Jack Johnson (D) said there’s no appetite for a slots debate in Prince George’s; Del. Melony Grifith (D), the chairwoman of the county’s House delegation, said much the same. State Sen. Anthony Muse (D), a minister and powerhouse in the county who leads one of the biggest congregations in the D.C. area, also expressed skepticism (though he’s always ready to make a deal). And Del. Gerron Levi (D), a newly minted candidate for Prince George’s county executive, said she’s opposed to the idea. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) paid Miller his respects, but added, in an aside to the Associated Press, “Oy.”

Silent on the matter — at least in the immediate media coverage — has been former Del. Rushern Baker III (D), the current frontrunner in the race for county executive, and Miller’s apparent choice for the job. It’ll be interesting to see if and when Baker weighs in, and what he says.

And it’ll be interesting to see if the idea gets any traction. But don’t ever underestimate Mike Miller. The man isn’t just a survivor, he’s a master of the game.

More amazing than his impressive longevity as Senate president is the fact that he’s been able to remain a true powerbroker in Prince George’s County for so long. The guy doesn’t even live there any more — and Prince George’s today is nothing like the place where he grew up — and yet a Dixiecrat continues to wield enormous influence over the politics and government of a majority-black county.

This may be a long-term project of Miller’s. Maryland’s nascent slots program is on such shaky ground that the state may not have the wherewithal to pull something like this off just now, even if there was a lot of support for the proposal. But with the economy so bad, with local governments really hurting, more revenue is more revenue. There may be more enthusiasm for the idea than immediately meets the eye.

And this, after all, is Mike Miller we’re talking about. Like Lola in “Damn Yankees,” whatever Miller wants, he usually gets.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Owings Owes an Explanation
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