In his prime, Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch had the barrel-chested stature of a former athlete and a habit of winking as he laughed at his own jokes.
In death, his absence cast a vast shadow over the State House, triggering open crying Monday in the House of Delegates chamber, which he led longer than any other speaker in state history.
“Yesterday, we lost a great man,” Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery) said in a halting opening prayer, pausing for several seconds.
“We lost our speaker,” he said.
Tearful sniffs from lawmakers and staff filled the silence that followed. Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Busch’s longtime chief of staff, Alexandra M. Hughes, held each other and wept.
Busch’s unexpected death from pneumonia Sunday transformed the normally festive final day of the General Assembly’s annual legislative session, known by its Latin name, Sine Die.
It also launched an impassioned closed-door fight over who should become House leader.
Jones, one of at least three lawmakers said to be vying for the job, presided in Busch’s absence, wearing New Balance sneakers — the same brand Busch usually laced up for the long final day of lawmaking — with her dress.
Her voice shook as she called the first bill.
Jones said she felt overcome with the realization that Busch was never coming back. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said later. One thought raced through her mind: “Let me not mess up.”
Other lawmakers mentioned as possible successors were House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City).
Any of the three would be a historic choice, since Davis and Jones are black, and Jones and McIntosh are women. Maryland has never had a House speaker who was not a white man.
Davis declined to comment on succession plans, saying the caucus was trying to wrap its arms around the loss of Busch, 72.
“We’ve never been here before,” Davis said. He later added: “It’s appropriate that we just let Mike have his day today. We’ll figure it out later.”
Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Monday evening that the House would hold a special session to elect a new speaker, probably within a few weeks.
McIntosh’s eyes filled with tears in the morning as she approached the State House to begin her first Sine Die without Busch. She shook her head when asked about a possible election to speaker.
“I’m not well,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s just so hard.”
The General Assembly stopped its legislative work at 11:30 p.m., 30 minutes ahead of the usual midnight adjournment, to hold a special joint session in memory of Busch, a 32-year lawmaker who became speaker in 2003.
“We are here together, our two chambers, at an event I never thought I would be doing in this time and this place,” Jones told the packed House chamber. “I still feel his presence here.”
Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore City) opened the eulogies simply: “We loved him.”
He recalled that when his grandson was shot, Busch called him every other day to check on him, attended the funeral and asked a trooper to stay with Branch that day.
“He was an unbelievable man, with an unbelievable heart,” Branch said.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a frequent political adversary, told reporters that he called the Anne Arundel County Democrat on Friday, two days before his death, and that they chatted about what was happening in Annapolis.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t have any quit in him,” Hogan said.
The final day of the session is usually treated like a holiday. Many people dress in seersucker outfits, lobbyists throw midday receptions, and lawmakers past and present gather in Annapolis to reminisce.
But Monday’s mood was somber. On each desk in the House chamber, staffers placed rubber “Iron Mike” bracelets, first made two years ago when Busch underwent a liver transplant. Mundane roll call votes were punctuated by strained and awkward moments.
Deputy Minority Whip Wendell R. Beitzel (R-Garrett) rose for his normally lighthearted custom of telling everyone how much snow Western Maryland received this year.
“I know it’s awful and insignificant, but it’s traditional that I give a snow report,” he said, as several colleagues sighed.
Hughes, Busch’s chief of staff, muttered from the rostrum: “Can you not?”
Minutes later, Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) gave a tribute to a friend and colleague, freshman Del. Mary A. Lehman (D-Prince George’s), whose birthday was Monday.
“We learned today that life is fragile — we’re not guaranteed tomorrow,” Peña-Melnyk began. “But I need to celebrate the life of a good friend.”
Lehman burst into tears.
The country’s longest-serving state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), choked up as he opened his chamber’s morning session. “It’s going to be a difficult day,” he said.
The mood grew even gloomier when Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Hartford) announced a second death, of 24-year-old Ross Brinkley, the son of Maryland budget secretary and former state lawmaker David R. Brinkley.
Ross Brinkley died Sunday of an accidental drug overdose, his father told The Washington Post.
Miller, who is battling Stage 4 prostate cancer, said many in the chamber remembered watching Ross grow up. “This is a heartbreaking day for all of us,” he said. “We’re going to do the best we can.”
House Democratic leaders and the powerful Legislative Black Caucus held separate meetings behind closed doors Monday morning to discuss, among other things, the process for selecting a successor to Busch.
In a meeting with the entire Democratic caucus, lawmakers were split over whether to select a new speaker Monday or make the decision after Busch’s funeral. Several were visibly upset as they left the room.
“Some people believe the speaker would want us to move forward with the business of the state and vote today,” said Del. Vanessa E. Atterbeary (D-Howard). “Some think we should wait out of respect.”
The long day seesawed between decision-making and grief.
With the clock ticking toward midnight, Hogan joined the politicians paying tribute.
“Mike Busch truly became an institution in the institution of state government,” the governor said. “Mike Busch will be deeply missed by all of us . . . but he will not ever be forgotten.”
Jones formally adjourned the session in Busch’s honor. “Sine Die, Mike. Sine Die,” she said.
Balloons silently tumbled from the balcony.
Busch’s widow, Cindy, and grown daughters, Erin and Megan, gently placed their hands on the lectern before leaving the dais. Cindy Busch ran her hand along the gavel, picked it up for just a moment, then let it rest.