Line of succession in the Md. House

June 04, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

WILL HE or won't he?

That's the question being bandied about by state legislators as Del. Michael E. Busch of Anne Arundel County decides if a bright political career is worth giving up for a cushy private-sector job with a fat salary and juicy perks.

But the buzz among lawmakers in the House of Delegates goes one step further: It revolves around the future of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor and the possible line of succession.

While Mr. Taylor publicly denies it, word fast made the rounds late last month that he'd love to jump to some other state job with a big salary, such as state treasurer, state comptroller or even lieutenant governor in a possible Townsend administration.

If any of those prospects panned out, who would take over the powerful job of House speaker? Mike Busch seems to be the odds-on consensus favorite.

Though he's virtually unknown outside his Annapolis-area district, Mr. Busch has emerged as a star in the House of Delegates. He chairs the Economic Matters Committee, a hotbed of special-interest bills, high-powered lobbyists and intense political bloodbaths over issues such as insurance, education, health care and banking.

Yet the even-tempered Mr. Busch has impressed with his fair handling of controversial bills, his perceptive grasp of issues, his determination to find a middle ground and his refusal to let lobbyists influence his decisions.

He also comes from a county that isn't one of the dominant Big Three that throw so much weight around in Annapolis -- Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George's County. And his county is close enough to the mid-point of the Baltimore-Washington region that he's not identified with either camp.

So Mr. Busch is an acceptable choice to rural lawmakers, those from mid-sized counties and to those on both sides of the Baltimore-Washington divide.

But suddenly, the heir-apparent may remove himself from the legislative scene. Mr. Busch runs youth athletics for Anne Arundel County. He's paid a pittance. And now there's a $147,000-a-year job that seems to be his for the taking with the quasi-public Injured Workers Insurance Fund (IWIF).

County officials, desperate to retain such a powerful figure in the State House, sought to negotiate a higher salary for Mr. Busch. They couldn't come anywhere near what IWIF is offering.

That leaves it up to Mr. Busch. Does he accept a far less substantial raise from county government and keep his political career, or does he take IWIF's money and give up what looks like a good chance to be House speaker, perhaps someday soon?

This is a tough call for someone who likes his job and is widely respected by his colleagues.

Whatever his final decision, Mr. Busch has put in play forces that could have repercussions in the next two legislative sessions.

For even as the delegate was mulling over his choices, Speaker Taylor let it be known to associates that if Mr. Busch jumped ship, he'd be succeeded as committee chairman by Majority Leader John Adams Hurson of Montgomery County, and that the new majority leader would be Baltimore's Maggie L. McIntosh.

This has been viewed by some delegates as a sign Mr. Taylor wants to anoint Mr. Hurson as the new heir-apparent.

That's easier said than accomplished. Mr. Hurson has serious detriments in a race for the top House job.

He's from Montgomery County, which automatically makes him suspect in the eyes of a good many delegates: Montgomery's legislators march to a different drummer than other delegates, and Mr. Hurson has a reputation for being parochial.

He'd never be voted "most popular" by his colleagues, either.

But then neither would his likely opponent for the speaker's job, Howard "Pete" Rawlings of Baltimore. He may chair the powerful budget committee, he may have won points by standing firm on fiscal accountability issues, but Mr. Rawlings can come across as arrogant, prickly and a Baltimore cheerleader.

If it were a Rawlings-Hurson contest, delegates may decide neither is what they're looking for.

History shows that delegates favor speakers from rural counties (Mr. Taylor, R. Clayton Mitchell, John Hanson Briscoe, Thomas Hunter Lowe) or low-key consensus seekers from the big city (Marvin Mandel and Benjamin L. Cardin).

Sadly, the current House leadership ranks don't have many -- if any -- candidates in either mold. Ronald A. Guns from Cecil County comes closest, but he's too conservative for most Democrats, has a short fuse and melts in the pressure cooker of the legislature's frantic final weeks.

Other committee chairs don't come close to measuring up, either.

So delegates may have to search through the second tier of lawmakers for an acceptable choice.

That could lead to Nancy K. Kopp, a respected budget expert with 26 years in the House; Kenneth C. Montague, a 14-year veteran who has taken on the thankless task of heading the Joint Ethics Committee; and Ms. McIntosh, vice-chair of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee who's been in office eight years.

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