By Pat Murray
It should have been a spectacular moment of political theater: A popular Republican governor linking arms with a powerful Democratic lawmaker to announce a partnership on an issue that divides their constituents. But the staging was rushed and the actors were sullen, leaving the audience to feel as though it was watching something unseemly and political, instead of the announcement of a meaningful alliance.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) office put the word out midday Friday that he would make a major policy announcement that afternoon. The timing raised eyebrows because Friday is widely acknowledged as a lousy time to make news. With the House of Delegates moving hundreds of bills to beat its crossover deadline and revelers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in the bars that dot Main Street and West Street in Annapolis, that Friday afternoon was lousier than most.
Those who weren’t working the House or toasting the Saint were treated to a hastily assembled press conference where Mr. Hogan and Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin (D) called for a ban on fracking.
An announcement like this is an opportunity for storytelling. Governors often stand with advocates and frequently employ visual aids to make policy issues accessible. This was different. Hogan’s team didn’t bother to stage the event. They treated their audience to four politicians and a bureaucrat standing awkwardly in the Governor’s Reception Room. One of the pols didn’t even bother to wear a tie. There were no advocates. No charts. Not even a podium sign.
The governor spoke vaguely about the environment. Zirkin cited research. They did not make eye contact as they shook hands. Neither smiled. Hogan played with his hands nervously and cast glances at his staff while the senator spoke. The performance lasted about five minutes.
To understand why this tortured improv scene was, well, so tortured, you have to pull back the curtain.
A week ago Friday, House Republicans argued the fracking ban was a job-killing war on rural Maryland. Over their objections, the House passed the bill with a veto-proof margin. In the Senate, some argued for putting the issue to referendum because polling shows Marylanders are evenly split on a ban.
The governor’s team, which views the world through the lens of re-election, was concerned a referendum could galvanize the Democratic base, whose sluggish behavior in 2014 paved the way for Hogan’s upset victory. They calculated it was better for their boss to sell out House Republicans and his supporters in Western Maryland than to mobilize liberals along the I-95 corridor. They also calculated – correctly – environmentalists who sparred with the governor would trip over themselves to praise him as the reincarnation of Theodore Roosevelt.
No wonder the governor looked uncomfortable. He’d been backed into a corner, forced to sell out rural Republicans whose enthusiastic support he needs, to avoid energizing Takoma Park liberals unlikely to vote for him anyway.
While cynical, Hogan’s logic is sound. Zirkin’s, on the other hand, is lacking. He spent the week poking his own party. He led the fight against earned sick leave, which passed the Senate last week with a veto-proof majority. He moved a bill Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) called “dangerous” because it “lines the pockets of the bail bond industry.” He capped the week by helping the governor strengthen his narrative that he is a different kind of Republican.
And for what? Very little, apparently, except to emerge as the Joe Manchin of Maryland’s Democratic Party, willing to sell his party out to promote himself.
There is a distinction, though. Manchin is the only Democrat who can carry ruby red West Virginia in the 2018 U.S. Senate race. Zirkin represents a powder blue district, and Republicans did not field a candidate against him in 2014. His delegate, Shelly Hettleman (D), is an ambitious and talented campaigner who has struggled to find her footing in the House. Instead of playing water boy for the Republicans in Annapolis, Zirkin ought to be worrying about his left flank in a Democratic primary back home.
Friday’s announcement didn’t make for great political theater, but a glance behind the scenes reveals plenty of drama. This won’t be the last time Gov. Hogan sells out his base as he runs for re-election, nor will it be the last time a Democratic lawmaker thinks his constituents care more than they actually do about the maneuverings inside State Circle.
Pat Murray is a former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party and a former aide to the presiding officers of the Maryland General Assembly. His email address is [email protected]. Twitter: @patmurrayesq