In his younger days, before he became the longest-serving House Speaker in the history of the Maryland General Assembly, Michael Busch was an athlete, coach and referee. The last was the worst. One day, he sat in his statehouse office and recalled some of the language hurled his way as he officiated ballgames years earlier.
Somebody once yelled, “If you had one more eye, you’d be Cyclops,” he laughed.
That was one of the more civilized taunts, Busch said. He was trying to make a point. As House Speaker, refereeing contests between the Democrats and Republicans, he sometimes longed for the athletic arenas where the language was more refined.
He was a voice of sanity, the grownup referee in the room, until he died on Sunday, April 7, at 72, after a struggle with pneumonia that followed a liver transplant in 2017.
We live in a time when political language has descended beneath depths once plumbed only in sports arenas. Today, it’s mostly in Washington, but Busch found himself in the middle of it in Annapolis, when he and then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich had some unfortunate battles.
Busch wanted to pull Maryland out of economic troubles with a small tax increase; Ehrlich with slot machines, which were his obsession for four lost years. In the meantime, in speeches and in radio interviews, Ehrlich unleashed every bit of venom he could find.
“There were attempts to demonize me,” Busch was saying that day he drew the refereeing comparison. “But it doesn’t bother me. You try to do what you believe is right. … I didn’t get into this to be popular. I may not be popular now, but at the end of four years, I’ll be pretty close to right.”
He was right on a lot of things. He championed the Chesapeake Bay and the public schools, and he helped decriminalize the use of small amounts of marijuana. He stood for legalizing same-sex marriage. In the current session, which ends this week, he helped raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Gov. Larry Hogan called Busch “a giant in our government.” He was right. In the Democratic Busch, the Republican Hogan saw what Ehrlich willfully missed. Busch was a pragmatist. He looked for ways to work things out. He wasn’t interested in name-calling. He left that kind of language to the blowhards in the athletic arenas.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.