The death Sunday of Michael Busch, Maryland's longest serving Speaker of the House of Delegates, has cast a pall over Maryland’s General Assembly as it rushes toward its adjournment at midnight Monday.
Reports of his death at the age of 72 brought a flood of fond memories from his friends and colleagues in the State House as well as others who have known the former high school teacher and football coach for years.
House Republican leader Nic Kipke said he and Busch, a progressive Democrat, "battled it out on quite a few occasions," but that the speaker "never let partisanship get in the way of fairness."
"He really wanted sportsmanship to be the way we handled ourselves in Annapolis," Kipke said. "He coached Republicans on being a better leader and how to get things done in Annapolis as much as he coached Democrats. That's why so many of us are very sad today."
Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House appropriations committee, said Busch "reformed the House," striving for diversity.
When she came to the House in 1993, she said, before Busch became speaker, the leadership was all white and male. But that changed after Busch became speaker in 2003.
"And you look at the leadership today in the House," she said. "And you see black, you see Latino, you see white, you see straight, you see gay, you see male, female. You see Maryland."
Former Delegate Virginia Clagett, who Bush named to the Environmental Matters Committee, called his arrival on the top job a breath of fresh air. Previously, she said, the House leadership didn’t want pro-environmental people on that committee.
“When Mike got in, there was a whole turnabout,” she said.
Busch, who represented an Annapolis district, had been in declining health for at least the last two years. He underwent a liver transplant in June 2017 and a heart bypass operation in September 2018. He was diagnosed with pneumonia shortly after a recent follow up procedure to his liver transplant and was hospitalized last week.
Saturday, he was put on a ventilator to help with his breathing and Alexandra Hughes, his chief of staff, announced the death in a statement Sunday afternoon.
She said Busch "passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones" at 3:22 p.m.
During his tenure as speaker, Busch championed a progressive agenda, pushing his chamber and the General Assembly to pass the education funding formula known as Thornton as well as bills to allow same sex marriage, repeal the death penalty, and, in this session, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
He initially opposed slot machine gambling, forcing it to referendum, but lost in the end when it passed at the ballot box.
And, after his first daughter was born, he pushed health insurers to allow women longer hospital stays after having children.
Busch’s death after 16 years on the speaker’s rostrum leaves the Maryland General Assembly without one of its two seemingly permanent leaders. The other is Senate President Mike Miller, who has served a record 32 years in that body’s top job. Miller is also been in ill health, battling prostate cancer.
In addition to his transformational role in the House, Busch brought home the bacon for his Annapolis constituents. Minor Carter, a lobbyist and one of Busch’s best friends, said the best example is Maryland Hall, the old Annapolis High School building that has been transformed with many state tax dollars into a major educational and performing arts center.
“I just think Maryland Hall is the epitome or the poster child of what Mike has done for the city and the county,” Carter said.
Bob Gallagher, an environmental activist, remembered seeking Busch’s help in removing a huge, abandoned barge from a West River tributary, where it had been polluting the water and interfering with marine traffic.
Gallagher said he had tried repeatedly to get state natural resources and environmental officials to act without success. And then he brought Busch into the picture.
“He said I’ll see what I can do,” Gallagher recalled. “And two weeks later it was gone.”
Busch was born in Baltimore and grew up in Annapolis. He graduated from St. Mary’s High School and attended Temple University in Philadelphia on a football scholarship. He broke the school’s single game rushing record and attracted NFL attention until he was sidelined by a knee injury in his junior year.
He returned to St. Mary’s to teach history and coach football, then later going to work for the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, from which he retired last year.
Busch leaves behind his wife, Cindy, and two daughters.
Gov. Hogan ordered state flags to be flown at half staff until sunset the day of Busch's interment.