It wasn’t long after I became a reporter in The Sun’s State House bureau that House Speaker Michael E. Busch first wandered in to the paper’s dank hovel of an office in the capitol, plunked down in a chair, put up his feet and started to shoot the breeze. This would happen daily, sometimes multiple times a day, invariably around deadline. (It’s a delicate thing to kick a presiding officer of the Maryland General Assembly out of your office.)
He would talk State House politics, sure, but also the weather, national news, sports, whatever, seemingly for hours at a time. It’s not that I was special — he did the same at the press pit at the other end of the hall where the smaller papers have offices, at the Associated Press office in the middle and then finally at The Sun, which was the last stop before the door. The man liked to talk, to anyone. Back in those days, he’d often cross restless paths with another inveterate breeze-shooter, Robert L. Ehrlich Sr., the governor’s dad, who was avoiding what he was supposed to be doing (babysitting) just as Mike Busch was playing hooky from meetings and phone calls.
But The Sun’s office does have one distinction, which is that it’s directly across the hall from the suite where the speaker’s chief of staff and spokesperson work, and so it is generally where he would get busted and steered out of the door, his staffer glaring back at me with wide what-in-God’s-name-did-he-tell-you eyes.
But Mike Busch did not need saving from himself. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The speaker, who died Sunday after a long bout of ill health over the last couple of years, will inevitably be compared with the living legend who served across the hall from him, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been leading the upper chamber of the Maryland legislature since I was in the fourth grade. So total is Mr. Miller’s control of the 47-member Senate that it’s often said he could get 24 votes to burn the State House down. To which I say yes, but Mike Busch would find a way to stop him, and Mr. Miller wouldn't see it coming.
In my first years in Annapolis, the big issue was slots. The new governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., wanted them. Mr. Miller really, really wanted them. Busch, personally and morally opposed, did not.
But that’s only part of the story. To be House speaker is a delicate cat-herding dance. There are 141 members of the House, some of them new to politics, others experienced and idiosyncratic. Speaker Busch was faced with a deeply divided Democratic caucus, some of whom were certain they would be doomed in the next election if they voted for slots, others certain they would be doomed if they did not. Among the Democrats, there were somewhat more of the former than the latter. What was the speaker to do?
Under intense pressure, he crafted his own version of a slots bill. Not the racetrack casino plan Messrs. Miller and Ehrlich wanted, but a slots bill nonetheless. After weeks of maneuvering, he brought it to a floor vote.
When that happens, there’s a period when people can explain their votes before a final tally is recorded. That went on for a while as Busch’s leadership team circled around the floor, twisting arms and letting people off the hook, while green and red dots appeared next to delegates’ names on the big display boards on the walls. Mr. Ehrlich’s top aides sat in the galleries feverishly counting. (I was sitting next to them, doing the same.) Busch was the only one who could see on a computer screen in front of him a running tally of how many yeas and how many nays had been recorded. Amid a speech by someone, on orders to stall for time, the tally hit 71 — a constitutional majority in the 141 member House, and Busch cut in, “And the clerk will take the call.”
I ran downstairs to start writing up this somewhat confusing turn of events. A few minutes later, Busch sauntered in and explained to me, on the record, that the House had just passed slots legislation with the barest of majorities, a monumental feat. Getting it through again would clearly be impossible. If the Senate changed so much as a comma, he said, it would never become law. Off the record, he said with a wink, “Nobody ever lost a bet on Mike Miller’s ego.”
And he was right about that. When Mr. Miller heard the speaker’s ultimatum, he went ballistic, and Mr. Ehrlich did not (could not? would not?) talk him down. The slots bill, for the rest of that term, was dead. The delegates who needed to vote for slots did. The delegates who needed to vote against it, did. A masterwork.
I would see Mike Busch spin that kind of magic again and again. A few years later, when then-Gov. Martin O’Malley was putting together a package of tax increases and slots legalization (which Busch still did not like) he pulled a magnificent three-card Monte routine with the Montgomery County delegation to push things along. Later, he held his caucus together through votes on the most personal of issues, from gay marriage to the death penalty. And in his final year as speaker, he turned his outrage at the self-dealing by members of the University of Maryland Medical System board (of which he was a member) into ground-shaking reform legislation.
Was Mike Busch political? A partisan Democrat? Sure. You don't get where he was otherwise. But even the Republicans who worked with him/against him will attest, he was as honorable a foe as he was an ally. He brought the best aspects of sports into politics, a commandment to be humble in victory and proud in defeat. He generated fierce loyalty from those who were on his team and respect from those who weren’t because that is how he treated each.
All those involved in Maryland politics today will grieve the loss of Mike Busch. But we can all be grateful to have been able to watch the work of a true master.