Josh Kurtz: The House That Mike Built

Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Democratic lawmakers -- and their leadership agenda. File photo

Just before Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) became speaker in 2003, five of the six committees in the House of Delegates were led by men, and five of the six committee chairs were white. Two were conservatives from rural parts of the state.

Today, half of the committees are led by women, two have people of color as chairs, and half the committee leaders are openly gay or lesbian. All six come from large, and largely liberal, jurisdictions along the Interstate 95 corridor. Additionally, the speaker pro tem is an African-American woman, the majority leader is a white woman, and the majority whip is an African-American man.

This is the House that Mike built – and those demographic and ideological changes only begin to tell the story of the stamp the late speaker, who died Sunday from complications of pneumonia at age 72, put on the institution he led so ably for so long.

These shifts did not happen overnight – they came about in increments, as the House Democratic Caucus went through generational, ideological and demographic changes and Busch himself evolved. When he was chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee under the previous speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D), Busch was a pro-business centrist, though he possessed a keen sense of fairness and a belief that health care was a right and not a privilege.

Busch moved perceptibly to the left as his caucus did, embracing gay marriage, the DREAM Act, record education spending and robust environmental protections. But his political journey seemed wholly organic – and may have been a consequence of the fact that, for half of his tenure, he was working opposite Republican governors.

Josh Kurtz

One of the ironies of Busch’s record-breaking service as speaker is that it coincided with the even longer tenure of Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) as Senate president. The Mikes will forever be fused together in memory, but their leadership styles couldn’t have been more different.

By reputation, Miller was the boss, the deal-maker, the legislative mastermind, while Busch was the genial coach. But in fact, Busch had the far tougher gig, leading a chamber three times as large.

Yes, Busch was Coach to many of his members. But the job requires immense discipline and a sense of order, and an ability – sports metaphor alert! – to see the entire field. Miller’s leadership style is in fact more freewheeling, and most of the time any member of the Senate can rise on the floor and say whatever he or she wants.

That Busch was able to maintain order and be such a generous mentor to so many of his members — while simultaneously pursuing a vigorous legislative agenda of his own — was surely one of his greatest traits, as was his steadfast determination to make his leadership team as diverse as possible. He knew every one of his colleagues’ districts – and their hopes, dreams, priorities and ambitions. And he worked hard to help them attain their goals – even the Republicans, when he could.

It is no accident that the person who replaces Busch as speaker will make history, whether it’s House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) or Appropriations Chair Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City). In all its history, the House of Delegates hasn’t had a speaker who isn’t a white male. Davis and Jones are black; McIntosh is openly lesbian.

It’s also no accident that all three are Busch loyalists whose careers were aided by his generosity and tutelage. McIntosh began her slow ascent in leadership under Taylor and continued her progression under Busch. Davis and Jones were junior members when Busch elevated them to their current positions, right after he became speaker.

All three would, to varying degrees, use Busch’s tenure as a template. They have different political bases, different life stories, different perspectives. But they’re all, at a basic level, institutionalists. Whatever change that comes under the next speaker is likely to be every bit as incremental as it was under Busch.

So who will prevail? The decision very likely rests with the Democratic Caucus, and caucus dynamics are often difficult to read. Alliances can form, coalitions built, deals cut, in an instant.

That said, McIntosh has essentially been preparing for a vacancy for a decade – making campaign contributions to colleagues, visiting their districts, mentoring them. Davis has more or less matched those activities for the past two or three years. Jones, though her stature has been elevated dramatically in the past few weeks, for all intents and purposes only joined the game a few days ago.

McIntosh is the most purely political of the three, having worked for former U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and run her own political consulting shop. And most lawmakers probably want a level of political moxie in their presiding officers.

McIntosh is perceived as being more progressive than Davis, thanks in part to Davis’ vote against marriage equality and his fairly friendly relationship with the industries his committee oversees. That could matter in a caucus that is moving steadily to the left.

What’s more, McIntosh is 71. Jones is 64, Davis is 52. If you’re an ambitious younger legislator looking for opportunities to move up the ladder, a Speaker McIntosh likely means quicker turnover the next time around.

So the money here – a dollar, at least – is on McIntosh. But until the next speaker is lifting the gavel for the first time, no one can say for sure.

This much can be said: Whichever candidate prevails, Busch would probably approve. And the House that Mike built will only see minor renovations.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this….great writing and insight! I love all the leaders you mentioned as the State will be fortunate in the choice! Keep up the awesome “insider news”.

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