The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland House will end legislative session mourning its longtime leader

Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch died a week after being hospitalized for pneumonia and a day after being placed on a ventilator. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered state flags flown at half-staff in memory of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, whose unexpected death Sunday leaves the House of Delegates without its longtime leader on the final day of the annual legislative session.

Traditionally a frenetic and celebratory day of lawmaking, Monday will instead open on a somber note, with lawmakers awaiting word of funeral plans and uncertain about who will claim the speaker’s mantle.

Busch, 72, died at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, after being hospitalized for pneumonia and a day after being placed on a ventilator. His death prompted an outpouring of condolences from allies and opponents who worked with him over his decades in politics.

Michael Busch, longest-serving speaker of Maryland’s House, dies at 72

Hogan (R), a political adversary, called Busch “a giant in our government” and said “this is a profoundly sad day for Maryland.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who served as a delegate years ago with Busch, said the Anne Arundel County Democrat “always had a way of bringing out the best in everyone.”

“Maryland has lost one of her greatest champions today,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

It was an unexpected and solemn coda to a legislative session that began with the announcement that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the legislature’s other top leader, was battling Stage 4 prostate cancer. The two men have dominated Democratic politics in Maryland for decades.

In a statement, Miller called Busch “a friend to myself and so many, a mentor and a historic leader of his chamber.”

Obituary for Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch

Busch was known for his ability to manage alliances and egos. He served 16 years as speaker, more than any of his predecessors, and promoted women and minorities to leadership positions long held by white men.

The speaker, affectionately nicknamed “Coach” by members of his caucus, underwent a liver transplant in 2017 and heart bypass surgery in 2018. With his health waning, he had been intermittently absent from this year’s legislative session, the 32nd of his political career.

He had less energy than he used to, presiding from a chair rather than standing before the at-times unruly chamber of 141 members. He no longer walked the halls of the State House whistling and singing. But the leadership team he put in place remained loyal and did not seek to displace him.

When Busch’s health kept him from the State House, Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) led the chamber. She said Sunday evening that she planned to play that role Monday as well, on the session’s final day.

It is not clear who would replace Busch on a more permanent basis. Among the Democrats whose names have been circulated by Annapolis insiders as possible successors are Jones, Majority Whip Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City), House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).

Each would be a historic choice, since Branch, Jones and Davis are black and Jones and McIntosh are women. Maryland has never had a House speaker who was not a white man.

Jones, who has filled in for three weeks this session, said she “wanted to make sure I did right by him.” She said she hoped anyone interested in running to become the next speaker would wait until after Busch was buried before beginning that process.

Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), whom Busch mentored when Brown was a state delegate, called him “one of the good guys.”

“He coached people and then let them step up,” Brown said Sunday. “He believed in developing talent. He did what a good coach does — identifies talent, mentors and sends you into the field to do your thing.”

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said Busch was “loved by all of us in the Republican caucus.”

“While we did not always agree, and at times were at odds on heavily debated issues, it is because of his leadership as speaker that our debate was thoughtful and allowed everyone’s voice to be heard. I am so grateful to him for that.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), a former lawmaker, was sworn in as a delegate the same day as Busch. The two were friends for decades.

“Mike was an exemplar of what public service is about,” Frosh said in a statement. “He was honest, selfless, intelligent and giving. He represents the best that democracy has to offer.”

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Busch was known for his folksy manner and affection for the press. He frequently held court with reporters as staffers unsuccessfully tried to coax him to return to his office.

As he rose in politics, Busch kept his job as a youth sports director with Anne Arundel County government and made a point of driving his two now-adult daughters, Erin and Megan, to school in Annapolis each morning. He retired from the county in October after 40 years on the job.

Busch was born in Baltimore and was known as one of the city’s chief advocates in Annapolis. As a lawmaker, he emphasized increased spending on education, including a plan underway to rebuild dozens of schools in Baltimore and a newly approved program that will put billions of dollars into K-12 schools across the state over the next decade.

A growing liberal wing has successfully taken on the Democratic establishment in Annapolis in recent years, especially in the House of Delegates, leading the charge for, among other things, a $15 minimum wage by 2025. Busch allowed the changes, in many cases more gradually than the left wing of the party wanted.

John T. Willis, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore, said Busch skillfully steered the House during that era. He also noted that all of those who will likely be considered to replace Busch are officials who have spent years under Busch’s tutelage.

With one of them presumably at the helm, Willis said he does not expect the chamber to significantly change course.

“I don’t see any kind of major shift,” Willis said. “There is not going to be a radical change in policy. Mike was already accommodating that.”

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