Even in the organized chaos of a half boxed-up office in the Miller Senate Office Building last week, 36-year-old Baltimore City Sen. Bill Ferguson was focused on a mantra of stability as his transition to Maryland’s first new Senate president in 33 years drew nearer.
“This session is really about showing stability through transition,” Ferguson (D) said. “There are lots of systems and protocols and things that over time probably need a fresh look, but right now we are in an evolution mode, not a revolution mode.”
After a vote on Wednesday at noon, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has presided over the chamber since 1987 and served in it since 1975, will not take the gavel, but instead the title of Senate President Emeritus and a seat in the back half of the chamber between two freshman senators.
Ferguson is grateful that Miller will not retire, but will stay in the chamber to guide him and other lawmakers.
“There is nothing that Senate President Miller cares more about than the institution of the Senate of Maryland. And I think we both share this strong value that in transition we must be strong,” Ferguson said. “He’s already been a tremendous mentor and guide and thought partner. I’m very thankful that I’ll continue to be able to rely on him to help build others’ capacities and skill and help to lead.”
After a refurbishment of the Senate president’s office to remediate mold from an overflowing gutter, Ferguson said he’s not sure yet whether he’ll fill the office’s walls with relics of Maryland history as Miller did.
But he will have a bit of a library.
Miller, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Maryland history and expansive book collection, recently gave Ferguson a series of books about Maryland legislative history.
The volumes include a study of the General Assembly in 1927 and 1929, and collections about other times of transition in the chamber, including in the 1960s, when committees were reorganized and legislative jobs were professionalized.
“It was amazing how similar the complaints about the session were in 1928 as they are in 2019 and 2020,” Ferguson said.
Understanding the ebb and flow of the history of the Senate’s operations has helped Ferguson put the current sea change in perspective.
“This is a big moment of change that I think is a little bit different than others that had been more gradual over time. But that is the one constant here: that elections have consequences and the people change,” Ferguson said. “The institution itself is what drives the work.”
Twenty of the 47 members in the Senate chamber this year will be in the first or second year of their term.
Ferguson has visited most of the lawmakers before or since the October Democratic caucus meeting when he was unanimously selected by the party as the nominee to replace Miller, who is stepping down from the leadership post while battling cancer.
During Ferguson’s tour, he’s received plenty of ideas from colleagues about how the chamber could be changed, though big moves aren’t likely until at least his second year.
“I’m trying to think through a process for vetting those ideas and being thoughtful and deliberative about changes that may make sense for the institution moving forward,” Ferguson said.
His top priority for the legislative session isn’t legislative at all. “It’s the perception and reality of a strong and stable deliberative body in transition. It’s really important that we continue to be the strong institution that we’ve been,” he said.
Ferguson’s next focus is on guiding the body to meet its constitutional obligations to pass a budget and provide a “a thorough and efficient system of free public schools.”
A former Teach for America fellow in Baltimore City, Ferguson fervently supports the Kirwan Commission recommendations for education reform, an issue over which he has butted heads with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in the past.
Hogan, who has said he supports many of the policy ideas in the plan, has expressed concern about the overall cost, which is estimated to increase education spending by $4 billion annually in 10 years.
“Everything is relative in this world, right? So the question of what’s too expensive, in my mind, immediately brings me to the cost of where we are now,” Ferguson says in response. “And if we continue to have less than 40 percent of our high school graduates reading at a 10th grade level and doing Algebra I in an ever more sophisticated economy is an astronomical cost. And it’s not just in hard dollars, it’s a cost societally. And it’s a cost I think all of us should be unwilling to bear.”
Ferguson and Hogan had what Ferguson called a “very productive” lunch in December.
“We had a really engaging and thoughtful discussion about the future,” Ferguson said. “I left that conversation feeling hopeful that the governor understands what the scope of the problem is and is open to the idea of moving forward.”
There will still be sticking points. Hogan has said he will oppose efforts to raise taxes to cover the cost of the reforms. Ferguson thinks a lot can be accomplished by having a “much more tailored and nuanced conversation around our tax structure generally” that would allow the state to ensure it’s not “relying on a 19th century tax system to fund a 21st century school system.”
Ferguson will have an ally in that debate in new House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first woman and first African American to lead that chamber, which is also in an era of transition.
Like Ferguson, Jones was a member of the Kirwan Commission and they’ve worked collaboratively in years past as chairs of the education subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
“I think she’s very talented, smart, dedicated and pragmatic,” Ferguson said of Jones. “We each have our own different opportunities and challenges in our own chambers. …I couldn’t be more excited to work with someone I have so much respect for.”
As far as opportunity in the Senate chamber, Ferguson said he will focus on ways to help individual lawmakers achieve success.
“It’s increasingly clear to me that success in this role is about the strength of the 46 other members of the chamber,” he said.
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