Michael E. Busch, the longest-serving speaker of the House of Delegates and a leader who presided over a series of transformative legislative initiatives in Maryland, passed away Sunday after his health rapidly deteriorated from a bout of pneumonia.
He was 72.
“At 3:22 p.m. this afternoon, Maryland Speaker of the House Michael Erin Busch passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones,” said a statement released by the speaker’s office.
Busch had been placed on a ventilator after his health had taken a turn for the worse this weekend. He had spent the better part of the last two weeks fighting pneumonia contracted during a follow-up visit to check on his 2017 liver transplant.
Busch had served as leader of the House of Delegates since 2003.
“This is a profoundly sad day for Maryland,” said Gov. Larry Hogan. “Mike Busch was a giant in our government—the longest serving Speaker in our state’s history. He cared deeply about improving the lives of Marylanders, and his legacy is evident in his many legislative achievements.
“Speaker Busch and I came from different sides of the aisle, but we often came together in the best interests of the people of Maryland. He served with the decency and good nature of a teacher, a coach, and a family man. I was honored to know him and to work closely with him.
Hogan ordered Maryland flags to fly at half staff in Busch’s honor.
“On behalf of all Marylanders, the First Lady and I extend our heartfelt condolences to the Speaker’s wife, Cindy, their daughters, Erin and Megan, and all of his colleagues,” said Hogan. “He was raised in Annapolis, he represented Annapolis, and he will forever be remembered here.”
Busch, an Annapolis resident, graduated from St. Mary’s High School. He was a football star there and at Temple University. A knee injury ended his chances of a career in the National Football league. Busch then became a history teacher and coach — a style that has followed him into his work in the House where delegates of both parties frequently call him coach.
He later entered politics and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1986. He served as chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee from 1994 to 2002. When House Speaker Casper Taylor narrowly lost his bid for re-election to his seat in 2002 by less than 100 votes, Busch was elected speaker.
Busch was a staunch supporter of higher funding for public education. During his speakership, Maryland expanded its minimum wage — twice — legalized same-sex marriage, toughened gun laws, expanded protections for the Chesapeake Bay, passed the so-called “Dream Act” and raised cigarette, alcohol and gasoline taxes. He fought legalized gambling, and while he lost on that issue he successfully insisted it be inserted into the Maryland State Constitution.
He was known for his quick wit and ability to master the complicated dynamics of a chamber three times the size of the Senate, one that has moved steadily to his left in the last two elections.
The speaker would frequently visit the press offices, sitting down for mostly background chats. In 2005, he would come meet with reporters, singing Motown tunes he tied to the fate of various bills. At the end of the 2005 session, Busch appeared in the press room and announced the imminent defeat of a slots bill favored by then Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, by reciting most of “Casey at the Bat,” with the words changed to tweak his Republican foil.
He playfully handed out awards to reporters on the last night of session. The awards were named for a longtime respected State House reporter for the Associated Press, but the tone of Busch’s presentation was more that of a roast.
Busch’s health problems date back to 2016 when he lost a significant amount of weight and seemed to lose a step during the session that year. By December of that year the speaker, through his staff, said that he was recovering from a gastrointestinal bleed caused by an undisclosed medication he was prescribed.
Those challenges also came with an undercurrent of quiet discussions in Annapolis — some sanctioned by Busch and others not — about who might one day replace the longtime leader.
Busch’s health battles also came at a time with the state’s other top political leaders — Hogan and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. — faced severe and even life-threatening health challenges of their own.
“My heart is broken for Mike Busch’s family, the State of Maryland, and the Speaker’s extended family – elected officials and staff that he has been a mentor and coach to over his time in public service,” said Miller. “Mike has been a friend for years, and has led the state to new heights of environmentalism and education, while ensuring that a new generation of leaders move our state forward. He was a true model of a State Delegate; he cared for every corner of the state, but never forgot about the people he was elected to represent. I will miss him as a friend and partner in state government and I join all the state in mourning his passing.”
Busch continued to appear frail during the 2017 session. The man known for wearing sneakers while standing for hours on end during marathon floor meetings was now sitting more regularly. The last day of session he missed two voting session in the chamber.
In June of that year he announced he had undergone a live-donor liver transplant. Busch’s liver, failing because of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis — more commonly known as fatty liver disease — was replaced with a portion of his sister’s liver.
Last year, during the 2018 campaign, Busch was sidelined by emergency heart bypass surgery.
During the 2019 session, Busch has allowed House Speaker Pro Tem Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, to preside over more meetings. She has been a familiar presence on the rostrum since Mach 20, when Busch missed a meeting with Hogan, Miller and officials with the University of Maryland Medical System to discuss an ongoing scandal involving that institution’s board.
Busch missed the meeting to go to the University Of Maryland Medical System facility in Baltimore for a follow-up on his liver transplant. His staff would say later that it was that visit when Busch ultimately contracted the pneumonia that caused him to be hospitalized.
As recently as April 1, Busch was talking about returning. He issued a statement last week that hopes to return to the legislature Monday night, April 8, for the last night of session.
Busch was said to be disappointed in the controversy swirling around the medical system and its board. He sponsored emergency legislation in the House to address the issue. His health made it impossible for him to be present when the bill was presented to the full House and at the hearing. Del. Nicholaus Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican and leader of the minority party, championed the bill for Busch.
Earlier Sunday, Kipke called the news of Busch’s declining health “gut-wrenching.”