By Josh Kurtz
Maryland Commerce Secretary Mike Gill stood in front a roomful of business leaders the other day and urged them to chant for Gov. Larry Hogan’s re-election (see here). Nobody chanted, but plenty of people applauded. Now that’s a loyal Cabinet member.
Hogan clearly prefers the nine months when the General Assembly isn’t in session to the three months when the lawmakers are hanging out in Annapolis. He doesn’t have to share the spotlight, and legislators don’t have the megaphone they do during the 90-day session to criticize him.
Yet, as Hogan moves increasingly into campaign mode ahead of the 2018 election, his Cabinet can be an incredible asset — amplifying his message on a variety of fronts, and moving across the state to reach out to targeted audiences on his behalf. The Cabinet members, of course, also help run government on a day-to-day basis – and a government is only as good as its people.
So who are the stars of Hogan’s Cabinet? How do they go about their business – and how are they poised to help him?
Maryland Matters queried two dozen people who follow state government closely to help us compile this list. Narrowing it down to the top five wasn’t easy. Still, the suggestions of most of our respondents were generally aligned.
The one noteworthy exception, where opinions differed drastically, was over Dennis Schrader, the acting secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Some State House observers described him as a hard-working, loyal and canny administrator who has learned from his experiences holding a variety of roles in federal, state and local government. Others complained that Schrader, who took over DHMH at the end of last year after Hogan abruptly jettisoned his predecessor, Van Mitchell, is a political hack who is way out of his depth when it comes to health care policy – at a time when drastic changes could be coming to the national health care system.
That debate will continue to rage in the months ahead, with Schrader’s status somewhat unclear – and Hogan likely to formally resubmit his nomination to the state Senate next year after it stalled in the final days of this year’s session (see here).
In the meantime, here are the consensus Fab Five of the Hogan administration:
1. **Ben Grumbles, Maryland Department of the Environment: If anyone in the Hogan Cabinet helps the governor strike the balance that he needs between being pro-business and a good steward of Maryland’s land, air and water, it’s Grumbles. Environmentalists don’t always agree with him, but they admire him, and he’s careful to keep the lines of communication open. And there’s no doubting that the former head of the water office at U.S. EPA under President George W. Bush knows his stuff.
2. **Pete Rahn, Maryland Department of Transportation: There’s nobody more steeped in his agency’s policies – and the corresponding debates at the national level – than this guy. After all, he’s held comparable positions in two other states, New Mexico and Missouri. Transit advocates aren’t happy with Hogan administration priorities, but Rahn is accessible to critics and pretty good about explaining why the administration does what it does.
3. **David Brinkley, Department of Budget and Management: Considering there’s a Republican governor and a legislature with Democratic super-majorities, the budget process since Hogan has taken office has been pretty harmonious – especially this year. Brinkley, a former member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, deserves a good bit of the credit. He has kept his head down, worked closely with the numbers-crunchers in the administration and the legislature, and largely stayed away from political battles.
4. **Kelly Schulz, Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation: What she lacks in pure policy chops she makes up for in her ability to sell Hogan’s priorities – and her relationships with former colleagues in the legislature, particularly on the House Economic Matters Committee. She’s especially good in one-on-one meetings, and it’s easy for her to promote Hogan’s pro-business agenda, because she fervently supports it.
5. **George Owings III, Department of Veterans Affairs: There is no greater advocate for veterans in the state of Maryland, period, than this Vietnam War veteran and former member of the House of Delegates who previously held the same Cabinet post under GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich. And he’s managed to survive at a time when Hogan seems to be relying less on seasoned Annapolis insiders than he was when he first took office.
**Honorable mention: Gill, for his smarts, hard work and cheerleading abilities, and General Services Secretary Ellington Churchill, who is smart and innovative in a position where he could just be a paper-pusher.