Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) entered office as a mystery man.
Having never held elective office before, he had no policy record to scrutinize. No paper trail. Plenty of people had expectations and assumptions based on his political and professional history, his rhetoric and his campaign promises. But no one could be sure.
Now, on the cusp of a second term following a record-shattering reelection last week, Hogan remains something of a mystery, even with his four-year record. He’s still a man who engenders assumptions and expectations, based on the traits he displayed in his first term. But questions persist.
Unburdened by the need to put himself before Maryland voters again, but with the possibility of elevating his national profile dangling before him, will Hogan undergo a political transformation? What will his priorities be in a second term?
Will Hogan seek to punish political foes? Will he – as some Democrats fear and many conservatives hope – lurch to the right?
The Hogan campaign did not make the governor available for a pre-election interview on this topic. He offered few new policy initiatives during the campaign – a stark contrast to his opponent, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (D).
But in a lighthearted and freewheeling post-election news conference in Annapolis hours after dispatching Jealous by more than 13 points last week, Hogan asserted that the answers to the questions should come as no surprise.
“There’s going to be no change of direction,” he said in response to a question. “The voters wanted us to go in the same direction. And that’s what we intend to do.”
Hogan promised some policy announcements before the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9. “But it’s basically more of the same,” he said.
He later added: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It seems to be working. And people seem to like what we’re doing.”
That last sentence says a lot about Hogan’s political – and governing – strategy. His popularity soared early in his administration and never deflated. In a blue state, in a solid year for Democrats, he surfed that enduring wave of popularity to a second term.
In public and in private, Hogan loves to mention his approval ratings. He nurtures his sunny, every-man image. And he always touts his bipartisanship and his eagerness to find “common-sense solutions” to problems, regardless of their origin.
But are there any policy proposals for which he’s willing to risk some political capital? Or is he content to remain popular on the theory that maintaining his high approval ratings, especially in a Democratic state, is the easiest path to being part of any conversation about the future of the Republican Party – and the nation?
Many political professionals bet on the latter.
“I think Larry Hogan is right where most Marylanders are right now, and I don’t think that’s going to change at all,” said one Hogan friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
This individual suggested that Hogan benefits every day from the contrast with President Trump – both Trump’s harsh rhetoric and his conservative policies.
“Donald Trump has been great for Larry Hogan, because he has kept him from the fringes,” the friend said.
It is that contrast with Trump, said former Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), that makes Hogan interesting to some Republicans and political pundits. Glendening compared Hogan’s political profile to that of a sharp Republican critic of Trump’s, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and predicted that Hogan’s second term would not differ much from the first.
“I think in the mind of some of his advisers, he’s got a potential for higher office, so if this works, why change it?” Glendening observed.
Playing to his base?
During a State House news conference on the first day of the public school year – exactly two months before Election Day – Hogan wasn’t quite as jocular as he usually is in public. He was there to announce that he was appointing Valerie Radomsky, a former aide to his close ally, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), to head the newly-created Office of Education Accountability. It is being housed, at least temporarily, in the Governor’s Office for Children.
Hogan had harsh words for one of his shibboleths, the Maryland State Education Association, and accused legislative Democrats, one of the teachers’ union’s strongest allies, of standing in the way of true education reform. Hogan’s goal is to create an independent inspector general for education accountability, and he pledged to introduce a bill to do so on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
Many school leaders in Maryland believe an independent IG is unnecessary and redundant, because school districts, the local governments that fund them, and the state Board of Education – whose members the governor nominates – all have oversight over education policy and performance.
But Hogan seemed to be spoiling for a fight.
“I think people all across the state are absolutely outraged at the lack of accountability [in the schools] and they’ll be pushing for this legislation and they will get it done,” he said. Lawmakers, he predicted, will “get a lot of pressure” from the voters to pass his legislation.
Equally noteworthy, Hogan seemed to eagerly anticipate a changed political terrain after the election.
“I think the legislature is going to pass a lot of things they were reluctant to pass before when we get back in January,” he said during the news conference. “I think we’re going to have a bully pulpit and a lot of people out there helping us push it through.”
What did he mean, exactly? And did his combative words say anything deeper about how Hogan viewed a second term?
Here’s one interpretation: “I think Larry Hogan is going to play to his base instincts more,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, a Marylander, said in an interview a few days before the election.
Several Hogan critics note that the governor has called former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) a mentor. Christie was chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, when Hogan pulled off his upset victory, and he was clearly a valued adviser. Hogan returned the favor by endorsing Christie’s short-lived bid for the White House in 2016 (and then, unlike Christie, famously refused to endorse Trump).
Christie was, like Hogan, a pragmatic problem-solver in his first term as governor – if considerably more acerbic. But his second term devolved into a nasty round of name-calling, feuds, score-settling and scandal, and he tried to move to the right in anticipation of his White House bid. By the time he left office earlier this year, Christie was the least popular governor in the nation.
Some Democrats privately suggest that Hogan could be the second coming of Christie, now that he is term limited. But just as likely, Hogan will learn from the mistakes of his one-time mentor – just as he learned from the mistakes of his former boss, ex-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), and worked mightily not to repeat them.
Not that Hogan is likely to play nice with his perceived enemies – nor does he suffer fools gladly. But he may choose to use a light touch – or sarcasm or irony – rather than a sledgehammer.
When Hogan was feuding with the teachers’ union this fall over his use of an apple logo on his political literature – the union accused his campaign of trademark infringement and fruitlessly took the case to court – Hogan campaign staffers delivered a bushel of apples to the union headquarters in Annapolis, and videotaped the encounter, to much GOP mirth. That seems like a template for further barbed Hogan political gestures.
Regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum, most people who follow Maryland politics believe Hogan is personally more conservative than his policy initiatives suggest. And they wonder – even as he continues to face super-majorities in the legislature – whether he’ll be able to maneuver to push through some conservative programs. Liberals warn that he may try to use his appointment powers – to state courts, to the state school board, to less visible boards and commissions – to achieve conservative policy goals.
Many Republicans would love to see some bold conservative initiatives take root, but they also recognize the hurdles Hogan faces on a daily basis.
Hogan allies believe he’ll continue to pursue a pro-business agenda – to seek tax reforms and business incentives, scale back regulations where possible, oppose proposals that could lead to higher utility bills for consumers, and resist initiatives that would bloat the state budget. He’s also expected to promote charter schools and general education reform, continue to develop his plan to widen Interstate 270, the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and turn greater attention to higher education. And he’ll still push for redistricting reform.
Social issues, invariably, will be off the table.
“Of course I would like to see him a little bit more to the right but I’m not anticipating anything drastic,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), the state House minority whip. “I think he will continue to look at the numbers, see what’s realistic, and keep the people of Maryland uppermost in his mind.”
‘Finding issues you can build a coalition around’
Those numbers include a 32-15 deficit in the state Senate – after a concerted push to pick up five Democratic seats fell way short – and a Democratic majority of at least 97-44 in the House of Delegates (one more seat, pending a recount, could fall into the Democratic column). What’s more, Republicans suffered terrible defeats in three big central Maryland counties – Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard – making Hogan’s personal victory, however triumphant, a lonely one.
Talk of Maryland, propelled in part by Hogan’s popularity and personality, becoming a purple state have grown quiet since Election Day. (Hogan, at his news conference after the election, said Republicans in Maryland this year were hampered by Trump’s low poll numbers, whereas “the last time, we had big coattails.”)
Given that reality, Hogan’s ability to pursue his agenda and get things done rests, to a great degree, with Democrats in the legislature.
“They had the votes before – that doesn’t change,” said Ehrlich, who waged some epic battles with legislative Democrats during his single term as governor. “They had the votes, they’re going to have the votes.”
But Ehrlich said that Hogan can still drive policy debates. He just has to be strategic and pick his battles — just as he did in the first term.
“The challenge [for Hogan] is finding issues you can build a coalition around,” the former governor said.
With super majorities and more progressives in each legislative chamber, Democrats and their policy allies may be bolder than ever about the agenda they pursue over the next four years. In fact, there could be a push for some of the very items Jealous proposed – more education spending, a higher minimum wage, legal recreational marijuana, expanded health care coverage, bolder clean energy goals, and more.
Following the election, the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club issued a statement lamenting Jealous’ loss but praising Hogan for emphasizing environmental protection during his campaign, and green groups say he exceeded their expectations in his first term. But in an interview, Joshua Tulkin, the chapter director, said knowing where Hogan is going to come out on any given issue remains a challenge.
“He tends to pick and choose his positions based more on political popularity than from some grounded moral principle on the issue,” Tulkin said. “That’s really the point – we never know.”
Todd Eberly, a political science professor at the St. Mary’s College of Maryland, argued that Hogan suffered no political consequences for failing to articulate an agenda that was as ambitious as Jealous’.
“There’s no indication at all that Marylanders think we need a grand vision or a new direction for the next next four or eight years,” he said.
At a news conference last week, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) – who is significantly more moderate than the majority of his caucus – predicted that Hogan and the legislature would continue to work well together.
“If he keeps his campaign promises, we’re going to continue to have good governance in the state of Maryland,” Miller said.