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Michael E. Busch was Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates from January 2003 until his death on Sunday at 72.
Michael E. Busch was Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates from January 2003 until his death on Sunday at 72. (Baltimore Sun)

I have heard or seen the word “integrity” invoked quite a bit over the last three weeks, though sadly more in elegy than as tribute to the living. Harry Hughes, the former Maryland governor who restored honor to that office after a scandal in the 1970s, was remembered at his Annapolis funeral as a man of integrity. Now Michael Busch, the speaker of the House of Delegates, has left us, and you hear that descriptor again: Man of integrity.

It never hurts to look up a word whose meaning you think you know. “Integrity,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” We also use the word in reference to the soundness of something, as in the “integrity of a bridge,” or the “integrity of research.”

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Harry Hughes and Michael Busch were both Democrats, progressive as well as pragmatic. Because they were politicians, the generous assessments of their lives might seem exaggerated. And that’s because “integrity” is not commonly associated with those who campaign for office and engage in the push-and-shove of lawmaking in state capitols or city halls, and certainly not in Congress. In fact, you could argue that 21st-century America, in the time of Trump, is an age of super-cynicism, with the widespread belief that people generally, and politicians specifically, are motivated mainly by self-interest. So we tend to be distrustful of claims of sincerity or integrity.

Harry Hughes remembered as humble and honest, 'exactly the governor Maryland needed'

Former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes was remembered as honest and humble during his two terms leading the state. "He was exactly the governor Maryland needed," Gov. Larry Hogan said.

There’s good reason for that, and, for Baltimoreans, reasons close to home. Consider, for instance, the brazen crimes of the Gun Trace Task Force, the band of police-pirates who brought epic shame to the department and all cops who try to do their jobs honorably and professionally. In reaction to this, the Baltimore police commissioner announced random tests of the integrity of officers. “These integrity tests are going to check people,” he said. “The good officers have nothing to worry about.”

That commissioner was not around for very long — not because of his insistence on integrity tests but because he did not pass his own. Two weeks ago, a federal judge sentenced Darryl De Sousa to 10 months in federal prison for tax fraud.

And now we have the “Healthy Holly” scandal involving the mayor of Baltimore and other self-dealing board members of the University of Maryland Medical System, among them a former state senator who sells insurance. One of Mike Busch’s last acts as a leader of the Maryland legislature was to see that these inside deals do not happen again.

As for Mayor Catherine Pugh, her political life is over, and by her own hand. The deal for the “Healthy Holly” books was bad enough; it revealed a lack of integrity in her approach to her duties as a volunteer UMMS board member and, previous to being mayor, as a state senator. But her lack of press conference candor about the extent of her book sales made matters worse and leaves her credibility in tatters. She should resign, as City Council members have urged.

Baltimore, Our City of Perpetual Recovery, badly needs a megadose of integrity in civic leadership after two mayoralties that ended badly — one to resignation after a conviction and plea deal, the other to realization that the mayor would probably not win re-election — and a third that appears permanently broken.

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No one in this life is perfect, but a lot should be expected of those who ask for our votes. They must be driven by a desire to serve, offering in return for the power we give them selflessness, honesty and commitment to the public good. That is the bargain we are supposed to strike with them.

It probably seems quaint of me to state these things, but there are a lot of things that go too long without being stated somewhere, and that kind of neglect of the ideal — or even common sense — causes lapses, and sometimes huge problems.

Kathleen Day, who lectures at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, notes that, after the last financial crisis, Congress had to codify the requirement that banks only make home loans to people who have a good chance of repaying them. The breakdown in the integrity of the nation’s financial system, a subject of Day’s book, “Broken Bargain,” gave us the last great recession. A retreat from regulation could lead to another.

That’s why we need competent and responsible men and women to serve the city, the state and the country. Government, generally, needs people who serve the public welfare with integrity — there’s that word again — and who understand their work to be among the most honorable of undertakings, whether they are legislative leaders, police officers, police commissioners or mayors. It’s impossible to put ideology aside completely, but many people do so to serve the common good.

I have seen in social media several people in Maryland, in and out of public life, mention that Mike Busch served as a mentor, and many others have said that he provided a great example of wise decision-making, crafty lawmaking and affable leadership. Those are all admirable things, and they are not merely the things people say in elegy, but things that were said of the man last week, last year, and a decade ago.

For each of us, there’s a lesson at this sad moment. A lesson for this cynical age. Good people need to step up and lead or else we are doomed to a long and deep breakdown in this society we have created. The young leaders of Baltimore need to step up and pull the city out of its spiral. New leaders in Maryland must follow Mike Busch’s example and keep the state on its progressive track. And, when they vote for the next president, Americans need to remember integrity, or look it up in the dictionary if they’ve forgotten what it means.

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