Once 'reluctant warrior' maps out political course

January 09, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Staff Writer

Like the all-star fullback he was at St. Mary's High School and at Temple University, state Del. Michael E. Busch knows how to pick his holes for big political gain.

When a Western Maryland delegate announced his plans last month to become speaker of the house, Mr. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, was among the first to offer his support, bringing the rest of Anne Arundel County's 13 delegates with him.

The new speaker, Casper R. Taylor Jr., has returned the favor, appointing Mr. Busch chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, one of six legislative panels that must sort through the 1,500 bills proposed to the General Assembly each year.

"For a guy that's only had seven years in the legislature, that's a real coup," said Del. Victor A. Sulin, a Severn Democrat. "I'd say it was a combination of good skills, being a good committee member and backing the right guy at the top."

Last week, moving into his new office behind the Economic Matters Committee room, Mr. Busch, 47, remembered his first brush with politics 23 years ago.

Fresh out of college, where his dreams of playing professional football had been --ed by knee injuries, Mr. Busch ran unsuccessfully for Democratic State Central Committee in 1970.

"My father [Glen Burnie attorney Larry Busch] put me on the ballot," recalled Mr. Busch, who grew up in Glen Burnie before moving to Annapolis as a teen-ager. "I went along with my dad, but I was a reluctant warrior at the time. A lot of young people don't want to get involved with politics, especially at the local level, because they don't see how it directly affects their lives."

After teaching social studies for seven years at St. Mary's and Meade high schools, Mr. Busch was hired as a youth sports organizer by Republican County Executive Robert Pascal, a friend of his father who quickly became his mentor.

'Political fairy godfather'

The two men liked each other and started playing tennis and handball, and often hunted together on the Eastern Shore.

"You could say Mike and I have a father-and-son type of relationship," said Mr. Pascal, who laughs at a reference to him as Mr. Busch's "political fairy godfather."

"He's got all the savvy now. He doesn't need a fairy godfather."

Like Mr. Busch's father, Mr. Pascal encouraged him to run for the House of Delegates in 1982, the same year Mr. Pascal made an unsuccessful bid for governor.

"I just thought people would take to Mike, and they have. He has a basic value system they like," said Mr. Pascal, now an aide to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Losing in 1982, Mr. Busch regrouped, tried again in 1986 and won. Since then, he has forged a reputation as a steady if unspectacular lawmaker who rarely makes mistakes.

"He's not a vocal legislator, and he's not one who has an agenda every year," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, an Annapolis Democrat and the Senate's leading environmentalist. "The ones that are vocal tend to make a lot of waves."

Mr. Pascal agreed. "He's steady. He's a man of his word, and he doesn't back down. He's taken tough stands with me. I tried to get him to vote for the governor's tax package, and he said no way."

His steady reputation had Democratic Party officials courting him as a possible candidate next year for county executive. Mr. Busch has since said he has no interest in the job.

"To tell you the truth, I think if Mike would run, he'd win," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Brooklyn Park Democrat.

"Mike is a quiet, behind-the-scenes type of person, but the people he meets, he makes an impression on them," Mr. Jimeno said.

One of the 'good old boys'

Even his critics struggle to define his flaws.

Annapolis Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff, a Republican representing Ward 7 in which Mr. Busch lives, does not like the delegate, who has sponsored several challengers to her in recent city elections. She said she has seen little initiative from him as a lawmaker, and when the city asked him to oppose the new 80-foot-high bridge across the Severn, Mr. Busch demurred.

"I don't know what his qualifications for county executive are, other than he hasn't done anything wrong since he's been in the House," Ms. DeGraff said.

"He's one of the good old boys, one of old gang, the guys who hang out together and shoot ducks," she said. "Do you know what he does for a living? What a tough job."

Like many freshmen lawmakers, he was not an overnight success. He struggled to learn the ropes.

"Sometimes you get down here, you're anonymous because that's the way the system works," said Del. John C. Astle, another Annapolis Democrat. "The truth is Mike has a lot of

talent, but he hasn't been in a position to demonstrate it to the public."

Difficult assignment

His first assignment on the House Judiciary Committee, composed almost entirely of lawyers, was a difficult one for a layman, Mr. Busch said.

"I quite honestly had to pick and choose my spots to be a credible member of that committee," which deals with legal issues such as thedeath penalty, Mr. Busch said. "I wasn't going to be a gadfly.

"If I was to advance I had to leave Judiciary."

After winning a second term in 1990, Mr. Busch got a break.

He had an opportunity to transfer to the Economic Matters Committee chaired by Mr. Taylor and took it.

Another break opened for him in February 1991, when Mr. Astle, a reserve in the U.S. Marines, was called up for Operation Desert Storm and resigned as chairman of the county delegation.

Mr. Busch won the spot and began moving into the limelight of county politics. He shrugs off charges that he owes his success to the old-boy network.

"There is no magic formula" for succeeding in the legislature, he said. "Mike Busch didn't emerge overnight."

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