Miller Downplays Death Penalty Repeal's Fizzle
By Dylan Waugh
Capital News Service
Friday, March 6, 2009
ANNAPOLIS - The Senate this week thwarted the death penalty repeal championed by Gov. Martin O'Malley after a contentious two-day debate, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, a capital punishment supporter, downplayed any apparent victory.
"The way the bill came out, I think everybody gets to declare a win," Miller said following Thursday's Senate approval of a bill that restricted death penalty usage, falling far short of the full repeal sought by O'Malley.
The powerful pair of Democrats worked together to foster debate on the death penalty despite having opposing viewpoints on the divisive issue.
But Miller took subtle jabs at O'Malley throughout the week, questioning the governor's efforts to promote the repeal and his decision to claim victory after a compromise was reached.
"The word needs to go forth to the governor," Miller said Wednesday. "He's declaring victory this morning. We're not going to deprive him of his victory, if he can call it a victory."
By the end of the week, however, the two seemed to be on the same page.
It's not the first time they have bickered since the legislative session opened.
In January, Miller said he "took the governor to task" about O'Malley's proposal to lay off 700 state employees.
O'Malley opposed Miller's push to require counties to pay at least some of the costs for teacher pensions.
Both issues are expected to be made moot by incoming federal stimulus money.
The two have also sparred over the troubled slots bidding process, with O'Malley repeatedly preaching patience and Miller initially calling for a potential do-over before softening his stance.
Miller did O'Malley a legislative favor, facilitating the death penalty debate by allowing a rarely-used procedural measure despite personally voting against it and receiving criticism from some senators for deviating from the Senate's normal custom.
O'Malley thanked the Senate president for allowing the debate in a news conference Tuesday when it became clear the bill would not include a full repeal.
"I am appreciative of the fact that President Miller and other members of the Senate leadership have allowed this debate to take place," O'Malley said.
The bill, now in the hands of the House, is what lawmakers are calling a "compromise."
Senators approved amendments stipulating capital punishment charges can only be brought in cases with biological or DNA evidence, video evidence linking defendants to the crime or a videotaped voluntary confession. In so doing, they rejected the proposal for a full repeal.
O'Malley declared at least a partial victory.
"While I do not think we can ever make the application of human justice perfect, the amendments passed in the Senate strengthen the standard of proof required to apply the death penalty in Maryland," O'Malley said in a statement Wednesday.
How much the failure to achieve a full repeal will cost O'Malley politically is uncertain.
O'Malley threw his full weight behind the fight for repeal, talking individually to senators, leading a rally of religious leaders and sending an estimated 60,000 e-mails to residents urging them to contact their state senators on behalf of repeal.
But Miller vehemently denied a suggestion that O'Malley squandered any political capital by not getting a full repeal from the Senate.
"No, no, no," Miller said Thursday. "He was elected by the people with a fairly substantial margin. I think he's going to be re-elected overwhelmingly."
Paul S. Herrnson, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park agreed that O'Malley's political standing is undamaged.
"I don't think he lost any political capital at all," Herrnson said, calling the bill "a win for both" politicians.
Despite downplaying the notion that O'Malley's political stock took a hit, Miller repeatedly criticized O'Malley for politicizing the issue, finding particular fault with the governor's e-mail campaign.
"The thing I resented most was the interference," Miller said. "Particularly the e-mails from the governor's office to the constituents, urging the members to vote a particular way -- like politics had something to do with it."
Miller took particular exception to members of his family receiving O'Malley's electronic urgings and said senators should not be influenced by political lobbying.
"It should not be about who's got the best lobbyists, or who can send the most e-mail, or can twist the most arms," Miller said following Wednesday's debate.
"Any member that's affected by e-mails doesn't belong here in the Senate, period," Miller said the following day. "Everybody knows what their feeling is on this bill without being pressured by political nonsense."
O'Malley defended his lobbying efforts at the Tuesday news conference.
"I'm certainly going to speak out wherever I can, however I can," O'Malley said. "I don't think that any senator that's met with me would tell you that I was twisting arms or breaking legs."
While Miller did grant O'Malley a favor by bringing the issue to a full debate, he defended the independence of his chamber Tuesday evening when asked how O'Malley would react to the amendments stripping out the repeal provision from the bill.
"This is not about the governor, this is the Senate of Maryland," Miller said. "I care what the governor thinks, but I care more about what this Senate thinks."
Capital News Service Staff Writers Michael Frost and Erika Woodward contributed to this report.