Middleton reflects on time in Md. legislature
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Six-term Sen. Thomas McLain “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles), the Senate’s only full-time farmer, lost his reelection bid in a surprise outcome to June’s primary election.
Middleton has served in public office for more than three decades. In 1994, he was elected to represent southern Charles County, Maryland’s 28th District, in the state’s senate.
Prior to that, Middleton served two terms as Charles County Commissioner.
“It’s been an incredible opportunity,” Middleton said, reflecting on his time in office.
“I look back and see that we’ve done some incredible things. And I say we because it hasn’t just been me. Susan (Lawrence) has been instrumental to my success and she’s been with me from the beginning. And I have an incredible support system with my analysts,” he added.
Middleton said he’s focused his time on being a voice for agriculture and rural communities.
“Senator Middleton wasn’t just a friend of the farmer, he is a farmer,” said Colby Ferguson, Government Relations Director for Maryland Farm Bureau. “He was a champion for the ag community year in and year out. To say he will be greatly missed from here on out, would be a major understatement.”
Middleton was appointed as chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee in his first term as senator. And since 2002, he has served as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“My dad said the biggest abuse of power is having it but not using it wisely. I’ve had this opportunity and I’ve tried to use it wisely,” Middleton said.
Middleton was born in La Plata, Md., and grew up alongside his 13 brothers and sisters on the family’s farm.
He said the Charles County where he grew up is drastically different from the Charles County he lives in today.
“I’ve seen Charles County go from one of the state’s most rural counties to one of the fastest growing counties in the nation,” Middleton said.
The 300-acre Cedar Hill Farm has been in the Middleton family since the early 1600s. It is one of the oldest farms in continuous use and ownership in the state.
In 1981, Middleton and his wife, Joan, bought the farm from his father.
“We were a struggling farm family, like so many of them are, but we made it work. I’ve been able to bring not just an agricultural perspective to Annapolis, but a general understanding of the needs in rural communities in general,” Middleton said.
Over the year’s they’ve transitioned from a tobacco farm into a bustling agritourism business.
Cedar Hill Farm, now under his daughter and son-in-law’s management, host hundreds of school children and their parents for a hands-on farm experience each year.
Assisting young and beginning farmers has been among Middleton’s key priorities.
In 2004, he and then Sen. Roy Dyson introduced the legislation that established the Young Farmers Advisory Board within the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Middleton said one of the most meaningful things to come from that was a needs assessment survey conducted by the board in 2015, which identified access to land and access to capital as the two greatest challenges facing young farmers.
Over the past several years, he’s worked to solve this issue. And said he’s proud of the funding he helped secure for the Maryland Agricultural & Resource Based Industry Development Corporation’s (MARBIDCO) Next Generation Farmland Acquisition Program.
“Next Gen was a number one priority for Maryland’s young farmers and we were able to make that happen,” Middleton said.
The “Next Gen” program was established through The Agricultural Stewardship Act of 2006, didn’t receive funding until fiscal year 2018.
In working to finally get the program launched, Middleton said he brought together key legislators, farmers, and agricultural industry leaders to stress the program’s importance.
The program received a total of $5 million in funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
“It accomplishes two key objectives,” Middleton said. “First, it helps young farmers access financing for land purchases. And second, it helps us meet our land preservation goals in the state.”
In addition to his legislative accomplishments, Middleton said he’s also made himself available as a mentor for young farmers.
He said one of his favorite activities is hosting the LEAD Maryland classes at his Annapolis home. He said the fireside chats are, “one of the things I’ll miss most.”
The fireside chat takes place during LEAD Maryland’s Annapolis seminar.
Susan Harrison, executive director of the LEAD Maryland Foundation, said to the program’s fellows enjoyed having the opportunity.
“In Annapolis, during the legislative session, to have anyone give so much time for the benefit of the LEAD Fellows, was always a real treat. Senator Middleton opened his home, and the entire class would squeeze into the sitting room, next to the fireplace,” Harrison said.
The focus of the event was on learning, she said.
“There were no agendas, no lobbying — it was a time to discuss agriculture, about policy process, about how to make decisions and serve others. The Senator was very generous in encouraging fellows to continue learning and leading,” Harrison said.
Middleton’s mentorship role extended beyond the agricultural community, to the legislative body as a whole. He said that during his career, he’s always looked for ways to collaborate.
“When you show your colleagues respect and try to understand where they’re coming from, they tend to give you the same respect and understanding in return,” Middleton said.
Being able to facilitate conversations is something he said he would also miss.
“We’ve built a legacy here,” Middleton said, “I’ve been in a position that’s enabled me to make a difference. People come to me to get things done.”
Ferguson said Middleton was a “go-to” senator when Maryland Farm Bureau needed advice or assistance on legislative issues.
“He was always willing to make time to hear what Maryland farm Bureau had to say and would go to bat for us each and every time,” Ferguson said.
In addition to his focus on agriculture, Middleton said advocating for the developmental disabilities community has been among his key objectives.
“Everyone has someone in their family or knows someone who has a disability,” Middleton said.
He has earned several awards for his work in this area, including The Arc Maryland Legislative Award in 2014, Maryland Hospital Association Inaugural Outstanding Legislator Award in 2016, and Maryland Rural Health Association’s Outstanding Rural Health Legislator Award in 2017.
Middleton said he expects a significant turnover for the next term.
Depending on the outcome of November’s election, one-third of the senate could be new in 2019.
Middleton said while he does remain optimistic about the future, he does have concerns about the dwindling number of moderate legislators.
“In my 32 years, I’ve seen a shrinkage of moderates in both parties,” Middleton said. “It’s why Washington can’t get anything done. We’re losing the middle.”
Middleton said he’s confident in several legislators from rural areas and farming communities whom he thinks will carry on his mission. And though he has to pack up his office at the Miller Senate Building, he said he has no plans of putting his commitment to the community on the shelf.
“I’m not going away,” Middleton said. “I’m as enthusiastic about the rural community as I’ve ever been. The older bread gets, the staler it gets. While I still have these connections to the legislature, I intend to use them.”
Middleton said one thing he wouldn’t miss about being in Annapolis was the early mornings and late evenings. He said he’s looking forward to spending his retirement with his family, especially his grandchildren.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” Middleton said. “My priorities are family, friends, and farm, in that order.”
But, Middleton said his work in Annapolis isn’t done yet. His term doesn’t end until January 2019.
“There are still a few more pages left to write in this chapter in my life,” Middleton said. “I’m relying on faith and friendship that I’ll be able to open a whole new chapter that is just as good or better than this one.”
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