Josh Kurtz: Speaker Mike Busch and the Thin Blue Line

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You meet Maryland House Speaker Mike Busch (D) for breakfast in Annapolis recently, and he’s wearing a golf shirt from Harry Browne’s, the bar and restaurant on State Circle.

Your initial reaction is, “Aha – the ultimate insider advertising the ultimate watering hole of insiders!” But of course, the proprietors of Harry Browne’s are also Busch constituents – the anomaly of the speaker also being the delegate from the capital city.

A conversation with Busch outside of the legislative session is a delightful, unhurried stroll through a variety of unexpected topics: His empathy for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); his surprise when he finds Republican members of the House of Delegates at odds with Gov. Larry Hogan (R); State House reporters he has admired who have come and gone; the struggling state of the news industry; the city of Philadelphia, where he went to college and is looking forward to attending the Democratic National Convention next month; and gentle gossip about fellow Maryland Democrats.

But for all his affability – and his well-cultivated image as “The Coach,” the man who has run the 141-member House chamber for 14 years and tries to get the most out of his players – Busch is at heart a policy wonk, committed to improving the lives of working-class and middle-class Marylanders. And when the topic turns to Hogan – a man Busch does not know well and from whom he is basically estranged – the speaker becomes serious.

Busch will concede that Hogan is riding high now – “he’s had the advantage of the bully pulpit,” he says, but argues he is reaping the benefits of a relatively strong economy and of budget decisions made before this governor took office.

“He’s taking advantage of things he didn’t achieve,” Busch muses. “It’s like a commanding officer coming on to the battlefield late, after victory has been assured.”

Busch feels the same way about the General Assembly session that concluded in mid-April. Hogan, he says, brought legislative leaders in early for a briefing about his budget proposal, but then “he didn’t fully inject himself [into the major policy debates] at all.”

Hogan’s attitude, Busch says, seemed to be, “Let those guys [in the legislature] carry the ball, we’ll take credit for all the good things.”

But where Hogan and his allies see unbridled success – and everyone takes note of the governor’s high poll ratings – Busch sees chinks in Hogan’s armor that the Democrats will eventually be able to take advantage of. Hogan, he argues, had to be led “kicking and screaming” into fully funding education and a new hospital in Prince George’s County and to embrace an aid package for Baltimore city. Battles over transportation priorities, he predicts, “will continue,” while the state government struggles to replace the Baltimore city jail and is sued over beds for mental health patients.

“I think the Democrats at the end of the day will be able to tell a pretty good story, too, especially in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore city,” Busch says. He expresses surprise that the governor isn’t trying to “widen the circle” by appealing to voters in those three jurisdictions, where Democrats traditionally do well, and to voters in Howard and Charles counties, which are trending Democratic (though Hogan carried Howard in 2014). He wonders why Hogan continues to craft his agenda with rural and conservative suburban areas primarily in mind.

“Those people are going to vote for him anyway,” Busch observes. “It’s not like we’re going to make big inroads there.”

He says the governor’s decision to delay funding for a new Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge connecting Charles County with the northern neck of Virginia – a top priority for powerful Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) – is especially puzzling.

“It’s almost like he wants to stick it in the eye in those counties [that didn’t support him in 2014], like he’s expecting that they aren’t going to vote” in 2018, Busch says.

Busch became speaker in 2003, just weeks before a new Republican governor, Bob Ehrlich, was ushered into office. Even though Ehrlich – who Busch knew well – remained personally popular during his four years in office, he was often on the defensive, wrestling with a bad economy and single-mindedly promoting slot machines as a panacea to the state’s financial woes.

Democrats won’t have that advantage in 2018, Busch acknowledges. And unlike the run-up to 2006, they don’t have an obvious gubernatorial nominee in waiting. You can rattle off the names of a handful of potential Democratic contenders for 2018, but can you say with certainty that any of them will run? And are any of them formidable enough to oust Hogan, the way Martin O’Malley (D) defeated Ehrlich in 2006?

Busch concedes that “the midterm dynamics” are unknowable right now. He wonders whether Hogan’s decision not to vote for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump will have any impact on his reelection prospects. Hogan’s cancer diagnosis last year, Busch allows, created “a different dynamic you can’t account for.”

In common parlance, “The Thin Blue Line” refers to the fine line the police are supposed to provide between societal order and chaos. But in Annapolis, “The Thin Blue Line” might refer to the role of the House under Busch in the age of Hogan.

The mandates for Busch and Senate President Mike Miller (D) appear strikingly different these days. Miller, who has known Hogan for decades and isn’t too far removed from him on the ideological spectrum, seems most intent on protecting his most vulnerable members – a half dozen or so Democrats serving in conservative districts that voted for Hogan. That seems especially true with a leading progressive senator, now-Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), two sessions removed from the chamber, and another, Sen. Jamie Raskin (D), almost certainly headed to Congress in January.

But Busch leads a considerably more liberal chamber. He’s got an eye-popping 65 freshmen in the House, including about 30 new committed progressives with ambitious agendas who are eager to take on the Republican governor and do not want to be told to wait.

“We have a lot of bright freshmen,” Busch says. “They’ve all acclimated themselves well on their new committees.”

He sounds a little like an indulgent father when he observes, “Even though everybody wants to change everything right away, there’s a process.” And he, too, sees the need to balance the desires of his progressive members with the need to provide some protection for their more moderate and potentially vulnerable colleagues.

So will “The Coach” be there to lead House Democrats – into 2018 and beyond?

He’s 69 years old now, and is serving in his eighth term in the House. Busch says, somewhat coyly, “I plan to run for reelection – unless some other dynamic comes up.” But he also asserts he’s “actively engaged in promoting and recruiting” potential Democratic candidates for the House, and thinks the party can pick up a few seats in jurisdictions where they lost ground in 2014.

“You stay on the job as long as you feel comfortable and like you’re energizing the caucus,” Busch says. As you learn more about governing, he continues, “you feel a larger obligation to stick around and fight.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.