Michael E. Busch may have ascended to one of the most powerful positions in Maryland government, but he never lost focus on the people who put them there, mourners recalled Monday.
It was voters like Curtis Spencer, a community activist from Annapolis' Bloomsbury Square neighborhood, who worked the polls and persuaded people to vote for Busch as their delegate.
Spencer donned his royal blue Busch campaign T-shirt and lined up on the marble floor of the State House to bid farewell to his friend, the speaker of the House of Delegates.
Spencer was among hundreds of mourners who filed solemnly through the State House, past Busch's casket. It was among the final tributes to Busch, a Democrat who served more than 30 years in the House of Delegates, the last 16 as speaker. He died April 7 after being hospitalized with pneumonia.
"I've known him before he came into the political world," said Spencer, who coached youth basketball teams against Busch's teams decades ago.
Spencer worked on Busch's early campaigns more than 30 years ago — the motto was "Send a Good Man to the State House" — and has been a dedicated volunteer ever since. He appreciated seeing Busch in the community, at Thanksgiving basket giveaways and Christmas dinners.
"He would break bread with us," said Deborah Johnson, another campaign-shirt-wearing Annapolis resident.
In all, half a dozen Busch supporters dug out their blue T-shirts to attend the public viewing at the State House. Others in Annapolis put out Busch campaign yard signs, and a banner reading "Thank you, Speaker Busch" was hung from the Arundel Center, the county government's main building.
Johnson said she felt that Busch was in tune with the Annapolis neighborhoods he represented, even as he focused on statewide issues as House speaker.
"He's been a voice for the people whose voices oftentimes aren't heard," Johnson said. "He spoke for us. He looked out for us as best he could."
Bagpipes played a mournful version of the Christian hymn "Amazing Grace" as an honor guard carried Busch's casket through the front door of the State House. The coffin was placed on a bier and in front of it was the historic House of Delegates mace, a 300-year-old wooden and silver staff that marks when the chamber is in session.
Busch's family — including his wife, Cindy; and daughters, Megan and Erin — and his close advisers and staff were seated in front of the casket as politicians praised Busch's leadership.
"Speaker Busch now takes his rightful place in the rich legacy and proud history of this state," said Gov. Larry Hogan, who opened a brief ceremony for politicians and Busch's family before the State House doors were opened for the public to pay their respects.
Hogan, a Republican, said that Busch, a Democrat, "left Maryland a better place than when he found it."
A series of Democratic officials praised Busch and his legacy.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski — who was elected to the Senate the same year that Busch was elected to the House of Delegates — called him "a champion of the people."
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin found it fitting to honor Busch in the State House.
"We return Speaker Mike Busch to the place he loved, where he made such a positive impact on the lives of the citizens of Maryland," he said.
Cardin, who also served as House of Delegates speaker from 1979 to 1986, praised Busch for not shying away from controversial issues like gun control. "We are better off for having known him," Cardin said.
Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore said there "are no words big enough or loving enough" to convey what Busch meant to those who worked with him.
Del. Dereck Davis of Prince George's County said Busch's "fingerprints were on everything" that the House of Delegates accomplished, but that Busch allowed and encouraged others to lead.
Del. Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County also cited the speaker's mentorship. "He saw good in people that they did not see in themselves," she said.
McIntosh, Davis and Jones all are considered candidates to succeed Busch as speaker of the House of Delegates, with a special session of the General Assembly likely to be called in the coming weeks for an election.
Anne Arundel County Democratic officials, meanwhile, will be tasked with nominating a replacement to fill Busch's delegate seat, representing the greater Annapolis community as well as neighborhoods in Broadneck and Edgewater.
But first, lawmakers honored their speaker, who many considered a "coach" of their unwieldy body of 141 delegates.
Dozens of state delegates and senators, as well as members of the Hogan administration, crowded onto the first floor of the State House to hear the remarks. One by one, they filed past the speaker's casket, some placing a hand on the Maryland flag, before paying their respects to Busch's family.
As police officers prepared to open the line to the public, the Busch family was escorted out. Cindy Busch turned and faced the casket, lingered for a few moments, and then stepped away.