Speaker Michael E. Busch 1947-2019

Maryland Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who died Sunday at the age of 72. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Michael E. Busch, the longest serving House speaker in the history of Maryland and a transformational leader in state and local politics, died Sunday afternoon after being hospitalized late last month with pneumonia. He was 72.

A statement released by Busch’s office said the speaker, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who has led the House since 2003 and served in the legislature since 1987, died at 3:22 p.m., surrounded by his loved ones.

Busch is survived by his wife, Cindy, and two daughters, Erin and Megan. He is also survived by his sisters, Laurie Bernhardt, Gail Burkhead and Susan Evans.

Busch’s death came just hours before the final day of the General Assembly session and sent shockwaves throughout the state – and brought on an outpouring of grief. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) immediately ordered all state flags to be lowered at half-staff in Busch’s honor.

“This is a profoundly sad day for Maryland,” Hogan said in a statement. “Mike Busch was a giant in our government—the longest serving Speaker in our state’s history. He cared deeply about improving the lives of Marylanders, and his legacy is evident in his many legislative achievements.”.

Busch’s death casts a pall of sadness and uncertainty on the final day of the legislative session Monday – traditionally a day of marathon floor sessions and backroom maneuvering, followed by late-night parties and merriment. There are still several pieces of legislation that need to be finished, including those dealing with clean energy standards, the future of the horse racing industry in Maryland, and prescription drug prices.

‘My heart is broken’

Shocking as Busch’s death was on the one hand, it was not altogether surprising: He had struggled with his health since 2016, receiving a liver donation from his sister in 2017 and undergoing heart bypass surgery last year. He had missed some of the legislative session this year and was hospitalized at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore with pneumonia for almost two weeks until his death Sunday. He last presided over the House on March 25.

Just hours before Busch died, his chief of staff, Alexandra M. Hughes, released a statement around 11:30 a.m. saying that he had been put on a ventilator a day earlier after having difficulty breathing, but that his health had worsened.

Statements of tribute poured in from all corners of the state and from political leaders of both political parties Sunday, as well as from activists whose issues Busch championed through the decades. Busch was a rare political leader who engendered equal doses of respect and personal affection.

“My heart is broken for Mike Busch’s family, the State of Maryland, and the Speaker’s extended family – elected officials and staff that he has been a mentor and coach to over his time in public service,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert),” another record-setting presiding officer who has battled serious health problems this year. “Mike has been a friend for years, and has led the state to new heights of environmentalism and education, while ensuring that a new generation of leaders move our state forward. He was a true model of a State Delegate; he cared for every corner of the state, but never forgot about the people he was elected to represent. I will miss him as a friend and partner in state government and I join all the state in mourning his passing.”

After nine years as chairman of the powerful House Economic Matters Committee, Busch became speaker following the defeat of his predecessor and mentor, Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D), at the polls in November 2002. Busch mobilized quickly to lock up votes to succeed Taylor and faced no real opposition.

Busch was a significantly more progressive speaker than Taylor, moving steadily to the left through the years as his caucus also moved left. He quickly became a leading opponent to then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), though the two had entered the legislature together in 1987 and had been personal friends. Busch was a significant roadblock to Ehrlich’s desire to bring casino gambling to Maryland – a cause also championed by Miller, leading to tense political conversations on the issue between the state’s top three leaders.

During Busch’s time as speaker, the state made great advancements in education funding, environmental protections and expansion of health care coverage. The state under Busch’s leadership legalized same-sex marriage, passed the DREAM Act, enacted tough gun control laws, and outlawed capital punishment.

“Nobody has done more to expand health care access and improve public health in Maryland than Speaker Mike Busch,” Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, said Sunday night.

Busch will forever be associated with efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

“While there were many issues that were near and dear to Speaker Busch, he elevated saving the Bay to a priority for the General Assembly, and legislators followed his lead,” said Alison Prost, Maryland executive director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Busch as speaker earned the nickname “The Coach” — an affectionate nod to his style of leadership and his history as an athlete, scholastic coach and leader in the Anne Arundel County Recreation Department, where he worked for 40 years. He served as a mentor to several younger members of the legislature – even some Republicans.

A flier from 1986. Courtesy speaker’s staff.

“It is sad and surreal that Speaker Busch is gone,” House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said in a statement Sunday evening. “He was a good man and a dear friend. The coach-like style that he brought to his Speakership lifted all of us up and made us better people and better legislators. He liked to win but what he wanted most was to see everyone ‘play the game’ fairly, with honor and dignity.”

As soon as he became speaker, Busch named the first African-American woman speaker pro tem – Del. Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), who holds the job to this day. He named the first delegate of Asian descent to high leadership posts – Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), first as majority leader, later as chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee. He named the first woman to chair the Appropriations Committee, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). And Busch tapped a relatively junior member of the Economic Matters Committee, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), to take the gavel at the panel after he became speaker.

Busch also championed another junior member of the legislature, Anthony G. Brown of Prince George’s County, who later became lieutenant governor, the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, and now serves in Congress.

“Mike always believed in empowering diverse voices and the next generation of people to shape the future of our state, and I truly benefited from his mentorship and wisdom, and cherished his confidence and support,” Brown said Sunday.

In Anne Arundel County, Busch was a major player, using his powerful position in the State House to boost local projects and causes. As Democratic fortunes have fallen and risen in the county over the past several years, Busch was the unofficial head of the party, recruiting and mentoring an array of younger candidates for state and local offices.

“I wouldn’t be in the Senate if Mike Busch didn’t believe in me and I am a better person for having known him,” freshman state Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) said in a Facebook post Sunday night. “It is my responsibility – it is everyone’s responsibility – to see that his legacy and his impact and his work continues.”

Succession speculation

Due to the longevity of his tenure as speaker, and his declining health, quiet jockeying to replace Busch has been underway for the past few years — and speculation has run rampant. McIntosh and Davis have long been seen as the leading candidates to replace him, though Barve, Jones and House Majority Whip Talmadge K. Branch (D-Baltimore City) could also be in the mix.

McIntosh issued a long tribute to Busch on her Facebook page Sunday night.

“I love Mike Busch. I just love him,” McIntosh’s post began. She continued: “Sure, there are buildings or bridges or even oyster sanctuaries that may be named to honor him. But his legacy is not just bricks and mortar: it’s his leadership. He taught those of us he left behind how to lead for the state of Maryland. How to build coalitions and how to build communities. We will work every day to honor him.”

But beyond the who are the questions of how and when: How and when will a succession vote take place?

The full House must vote to elect the next speaker, but as a practical matter, the decision rests with the Democratic Caucus, as Democrats hold a 98-42 advantage in the House chamber, with Busch’s seat now vacant.

In an email to Maryland Matters Sunday night, Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said he had no fix on a timetable for a caucus meeting to discuss succession.

“Today we’re mourning the speaker,” he wrote. “We’ll know more” Monday.

However, the Democratic caucus was already scheduled to meet on Monday morning to map out the final day of the legislative session, and that meeting will presumably still take place.

Jones has been presiding over House floor sessions since March 26, and she will do so on Monday. But House rules state, “If the absence of the Speaker is permanent, the House shall elect a new speaker.”

The rules, however, do not state how soon that must occur. During that interim — however long it might be — the speaker pro tempore is the presiding officer of the House.

In the most recent case, in 1973, the House was without a speaker for an entire month before a new one was elected.

In that case, Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) announced the appointment of House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe (D-Talbot) to the Court of Special Appeals on Sept. 22, 1973, and he was sworn in as a judge on Oct. 9, 1973.

Yet, the governor did not schedule a special session of the General Assembly to pick a new speaker to succeed Lowe for an entire month. On Nov. 9, 1973, the House elected John Hanson Briscoe (D-St. Mary’s) its speaker.

Until Hogan schedules a special session for the House to elect a new speaker, Jones will remain at the helm.

Because the legislature is scheduled to adjourn on Monday at midnight, that could impact the House’s timetable on choosing a successor to Busch. The Democratic Caucus may not want to discuss succession on Monday – and sources said there is some preference within the caucus for holding off on a discussion until after Busch’s funeral, which had not been scheduled as of late Sunday night.

Several sources also said Sunday night that a Tuesday caucus vote seems like a plausible scenario. Top legislative leaders and staffers were said to be receiving briefings Sunday night from the state attorney general’s office on succession timetables and options.

Less complicated is how Busch’s seat will be filled in the House of Delegates. Hogan will officially name a replacement, following a recommendation from the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee.

But for now, the legislature is in uncharted territory with one day left in session.

“Tomorrow is going to be a sad day for all of us in Annapolis,” Luedtke tweeted Sunday night. “But Mike Busch would’ve wanted us to continue doing the work of the people – work he dedicated his life to – with the same thoughtfulness and respect he always did. We will do that, and honor his legacy by doing so.” 

William F. Zorzi contributed to this report.

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