The final day of Maryland’s General Assembly session ended Monday just as it began — with tearful words of tribute to House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch, a pillar of state government who died after a bout with pneumonia.
Shortly before midnight, lawmakers greeted Busch’s family — his wife, Cindy, and two daughters, Erin and Megan — with a standing ovation, and sat them in a place of honor at the rostrum where the state’s longest-serving speaker had guided his half of the state’s legislative branch for 16 years.
Both chambers, more than 180 lawmakers, ended their annual session early for a joint floor session to give speeches of solemn praise to the man they all called “Coach.”
“This is a tribute to our speaker,” House Speaker Pro tem Adrienne Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said. “I can tell you I still feel his presence here. His family is here. His sisters, and all of us who were his family during the 90-day session, are here.”
Busch, known as a champion of the state’s schools and the Chesapeake Bay, died Sunday. The Anne Arundel Democrat was 72.
“Together, we mourn the loss of a great man,” Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told lawmakers. “Mike Busch was a leader in the Annapolis community, a pillar in state government and a larger than life figure in this House chamber.”
Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat, called Busch “an unbelievable man, with an unbelievable heart” and highlighted how hard the former teacher and coach pushed for funding for the state’s public schools.
“He loved education so and children and he wanted the absolute best for them,” Branch said.
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, recalled how Busch reached across the aisle to support lawmakers he disagreed with. “He was a good man and dear friend,” Kipke said.
Earlier, the final day of session opened with tears on the Senate floor. Lawmakers recalled how Busch — a former star running back who played football in high school and college — campaigned for office in his early days with brochures that featured him running in athletic shorts and said “Mike Busch … Running Hard!” and “Send a good man to the State House.”
They said he had lived up that pledge.
“This is going to be a difficult day for all of us,” said Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a friend and sometimes rival of Busch. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk about it. We need to proceed as best we can in his honor.”
One by one, the senators the rose to speak.
Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who shares the same Anne Arundel district as Busch and campaigned with him, called the him “the best of us, and a great mentor and friend.”
Jones, a part of Busch’s leadership team, began the day lacing up a pair of New Balance sneakers — just as Busch always did — as she prepared to preside over a series of long floor sessions. The decision was part a practical matter, and part in tribute to Busch, she said.
Jones said the reality of Busch’s death hit her as she opened Monday’s first floor session. Her voice cracked with emotion and she embraced Busch’s chief of staff, Alexandra Hughes, during the opening prayer.
“The realization that he’s not coming physically back into this chamber any more — that just really hits you when you’re going to preside and looking out at the body, that this is real,” Jones said. “It just really hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Jones then gave a big hug to Democratic Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo of Montgomery County in opening the House session with a prayer.
“Yesterday we lost a great man,” he said.
After the speeches, the lawmakers began to honor Busch with their votes. The first action was to override Hogan’s veto of Busch’s legislation to permanently bar oyster harvesting in five waterways targeted for restoration of the distressed species.
Senators overrode the veto with 29 votes — without a single vote to spare — to support the legislation, which environmental groups say is needed to prevent the dwindling oyster population from dying out. The bill blocks harvesting in five of 51 of the state’s oyster sanctuaries. The House voted Friday to override the veto.
“You know who’s the sponsor of that bill,” Miller told senators. “It’s very important.”
Busch presided over a progressive agenda as speaker that included ending the death penalty, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, legalizing same-sex marriage and, in this session, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Busch recently led the legislative charge to bolster education funding in the state to new levels. Last week, lawmakers passed Busch’s bill that would boost education funding in the state by $850 million over two years.
Near the end of the night, lawmakers approved Busch’s emergency legislation that would reform the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors after learning of no-bid contracting by some board members — a scandal that has rocked the state and the speaker moved quickly to address.
When Busch’s version of the bill passed, delegates rose to their feet and applauded.
“The final bill Speaker Busch ever introduced passing unanimously in the House,” Montgomery County Democratic Del. Eric Luedtke tweeted. “Standing ovation on the bill's passage. A lot of tears. We'll keep carrying the torch, coach.”
When the two chambers adjourned to end the night, they did so in a moment of silence. Balloons fell from the balcony, and the lawmakers left the chambers, their voices hushed.