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Fraser Smith on Busch, Miller, leadership and mortality in the State House

Through the extraordinary 2019 legislative session, the most frequently asked question was, “How do they look?

The answer: Not good.

“They” were Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch. Both ran their chambers determined to finish the job but not knowing if they could.

Mr. Busch, who had prevailed over serious medical issues for several years, died of pneumonia one day before the final gavel. Mr. Miller had disclosed early in the session that he was being treated for advanced prostate cancer.

Weakened and seemingly in pain, he survived to eulogize his colleague in the House chamber on “sine die,” Latin for adjournment without return. For Speaker Busch’s mourning colleagues, of course, the parliamentary term had poignant significance.

Senator Miller said he had worked with many governors and speakers, but the 16-year partnership with Mr. Busch had been the most rewarding.

His own service in 2019 did not go unmentioned. Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, honored him during the sine die commemoration of Mr. Busch: “I just want to say — on behalf of the entire Senate — how much we absolutely admire everything you’re doing and everything you’ve done this session.”

Marylanders found themselves watching the end of an era. Two proud and skillful legislators had been the rock of government for 16 years. As if nothing else could end their leadership, life-threatening illness moved in on both in the same year. Mr. Busch had been speaker longer than anyone Maryland history. Mr. Miller’s 33 years at the rostrum set a national record for state senate presidents.

Governors come and go. These two men, their personal ambitions apparently well-satisfied, presided over many issues of consequence. Governors worked with them, to be sure, but they built the winning margins on issues from the death penalty to marriage equality to education funding.

Along with state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, they kept the state’s financial house in order, maintained the under-appreciated Triple-A bond rating, and avoided scandal.

Given Maryland’s history of Democratic Party dominance, bi-partisanship meant that Mr. Busch’s usually more progressive House and Mr. Miller’s typically more conservative Senate — not always in sync — had reached agreement.

In the weeks before his death, Mr. Busch found himself fighting for the state’s honor from his hospital bed.

He gained a few critics — and a greater number of backers — when he angrily insisted on legislation to re-make the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors, on which he served. He couldn’t accept the appearance of financial self-dealing there.

When he was feeling momentarily stronger, he told his friend, the former delegate Bruce Poole: “Marylanders should have confidence in everything the state does: Shock Trauma, public education, stewardship of the bay. They should have no worry that self-dealing might diminish the quality of what we’re providing.”

Mike Busch, whose funeral was Tuesday, always reacted quickly to any suggestion of impropriety — particularly by state officials or members of the House. He recently disciplined a delegate whom he thought had appeared to profit from a bill he had worked on. Following the letter of the ethics rules was not enough. The spirit mattered.

A Democrat, he knew his House would work more smoothly if the members, including Republicans, understood the process. He wanted to win every issue. He also knew he’d be more successful if he had the members’ trust.

All the rules mattered more when the stakes were higher, including difficult decisions made in the perilous budget-balancing decisions during former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s first term. Mr. O’Malley said Speaker Busch’s leadership was critical when the state tried to avoid laying off teachers. Not every legislator went along.

“We won some of these issues by a vote or two. We wouldn’t have without Busch,“ Mr. O’Malley said.

In a tribute/prayer on the last night of the 2019 session, Baltimore Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg said the coach who became speaker led with his head and his heart.

“As this House — his team, his state — evolved on issues, he did more than adjust to change, he understood it.”

As always, new leadership will be found. Finding role models won’t be a problem.

C. Fraser Smith is a former Sun reporter and columnist who covered state government for more than 30 years. His email is smithfraser911@gmail.com.

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