A somber General Assembly got back to work Monday morning, trying to crank through a busy agenda before ending its 90-day session late Monday night while members process their grief over the death Sunday of House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
The legislature will meet in a rare joint session at 11:30 p.m. Monday to pay tribute to Busch, who died at the age of 72 following a two-week bout with pneumonia. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) plans to attend and speak.
That effectively means the frenetic legislative day will end at least half an hour earlier than normal; General Assembly sessions traditionally end at midnight on Sine Die.
What’s clear at this hour is that Democratic delegates – who will control the process for selecting the first new House speaker since 2003 – have not yet settled on a strategy or timetable for doing so.
“I think today we’re going to be focused on honoring the speaker and on getting our work done,” Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), the Democratic Caucus chair, told reporters early Monday afternoon.
But Luedtke did not discount the possibility of the caucus talking further – and possibly even making some preliminary decisions – later in the day. The caucus is next scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Monday.
Saddened and distracted by Busch’s passing and unclear what the short-term and long-term ramifications are, lawmakers rolled into town Monday morning and some got immediately to work. The House Judiciary Committee held an early morning voting session on a trio of Senate bills but did not discuss a controversial measure to create a state mediation board for asbestos lawsuits.
Del. Luke V. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), the committee chair, did not discount the possibility of taking a vote later in the day on the controversial legislation, which is being promoted by the powerful Baltimore law firm of Peter G. Angelos.
“There are discussions still going on,” Clippinger told his colleagues. “Until there is something to talk about here, we’re not gonna talk about it publicly.”
In a brief interview, Clippinger elaborated slightly. “We’re having conversations with the Senate, with everybody. So we’ll see,” he said.
The House Democratic and Republican caucuses went into closed-door meetings around 10:20 a.m. Notably, House Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), considered the two leading contenders to replace Busch as speaker, walked in side-by-side, accompanied by Sandra Benson Brantley, the legislature’s chief counsel. State Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), Brantley’s boss, popped in moments later.
Earlier Monday, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Montgomery County delegation, the biggest delegation in the legislature, held closed-door sessions. Both represent large blocs of votes within the Democratic Caucus.
While delegates were conferring behind closed doors, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who is in his 33rd year as a presiding officer and is battling health problems of his own, convened his chamber and offered an emotional tribute to Busch.
“This is going to a difficult day for all of us,” Miller said. “I was on Facebook last night, just reading all the tributes, and I couldn’t sleep.”
“I can’t even talk about it,” he continued, pausing, his voice cracking. “We need to proceed as best we can, in his honor.”
Miller said he and Busch only had two serious differences during the 16 years they served side-by-side as presiding officers — one dealing with school construction funding (and the inclusion of “pork barrel projects”), the other with the expansion of legalized gambling.
“It took a while for him to come around, but it was a nationwide trend, it was gonna happen. But it had to happen on his terms, which was fine. But it took five or six years to make it happen.”
Like many current and former delegates, Miller noted that the skills Busch honed as a high school coach served him well in the General Assembly.
“You only have one speaker, your first speaker,” Miller observed. “And that’s your mentor, that’s your teacher. And he was a teacher. He was a coach. And he did a great job.”
Following the tributes to Busch, the Senate got to work, overriding Hogan’s veto of a bill establishing oyster sanctuaries in five Chesapeake Bay tributaries by a 29-16 vote – the minimum needed for an override. Busch was the prime House sponsor of the measure – and the House had voted to override Hogan’s veto on Friday.
Senate Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) said that while Republicans planned to vote against the measure, they would not speak extensively, out of deference to Busch and the legislation’s supporters.
Back in the House building, delegates emerged from their caucus meetings somber and reluctant to talk.
“We were just going over bills,” Del. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll), told Maryland Matters, showing a printed list of legislation.
The Democrats walked out a few minutes later, refusing to say what they had discussed. Many were visibly upset.
“I am in a bad place right now – can I catch you later?” McIntosh said.
Some members of the House leadership team lingered after the caucus meeting, talking more with Frosh.
A senior leadership member initially began telling a Maryland Matters reporter that the discussion surrounded the succession process, but then cut the conversation short.
Several members stopped outside a door to the House office building to shake hands with Frosh, thanking him for the explanations he offered during the meeting.
Frosh declined to comment on what was said at the meeting. He offered a remembrance of Busch: “It’s a sad day. He’s been a fixture in Annapolis for 32-plus years. He’s a good friend, and personally, it’s painful. But it’s a bad day for the state of Maryland… and the state is poorer for his passing.”
From there, the House members walked across the street to the State House, where the rostrum in the chamber was draped in black. House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who has been presiding over the House since March 26, when Busch was hospitalized, laced up a pair of New Balance sneakers – in the style of Busch – before she arrived at the rostrum. She almost decided not to go with the footwear, given her 5 foot 2 ½-inch stature, “but it’s tradition,” she said.
Jones’ voice cracked with emotion as the chamber was called to order and she and Busch’s long-time chief of staff Alexandra M. Hughes embraced through tears during while Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) offered the morning prayer.
“Yesterday, we lost a great man,” Fraser-Hidalgo said. “Yesterday, we lost our speaker, Mike Busch. And I could ask that everyone, and I know they will and I know they have, continue to support each other and support the speaker’s family, through our prayers, through our wishes and through our deeds. Thank you. Amen.”
With that, the House quickly turned to a calendar of third reading bills.
After a relatively short, workman-like session, delegates were willing to say a little more about how the succession process might go.
The chamber could either vote today or call a special session, Luedtke said.
Asked if a vote might occur at the same time as a special session on congressional redistricting, if that’s required, Luedtke demurred. “I think the decision is going to be made based on when we need to make the decision, not based on when the Supreme Court makes a decision on a different issue,” Luedtke said.
He declined to discuss what Frosh discussed during the party caucus.
Asked whether Jones could wind up being the presiding officer through the 2020 session, Luedtke replied, “Is it allowed under the rules? Yes. Is it likely to happen? I doubt it.”
Del. Darryl S. Barnes (D-Prince George’s), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he and his colleagues in the caucus are ready to wield influence in the succession process.
“I think right now, we’re looking at the process, looking at all those who would be interested in running,” he said. “Looking at their qualifications, what they would bring to the table … but more importantly, how would they represent the state of Maryland.”
Jones did not discuss whether she could be in the mix to be the next speaker, but did reflect on the enormity of the moment.
“Today is different in that I know that he’s gone,” she said of Busch. “I was tearing up all day yesterday, but the realization that he’s not coming physically into this chamber anymore, that really hits you when you’re going to preside, looking out at the body. This is real, and it just really hit me like a ton of bricks this morning.”
Jones said she’s comforted knowing “that he’s up in heaven looking down on us and we just want to make sure we do things as he would want to be done in his chamber.”
And Annapolis got another reminder of the fragility of life on Monday – when State Budget and Management Secretary David Brinkley, a former state legislator, announced on Facebook that his 24-year-old son had died over the weekend from an accidental drug overdose.
The Senate adjourned its first session Monday in Ross Brinkley’s memory.
Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.