When it comes to big splashy announcements, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his staff are masters at keeping their news under wraps until he steps to the microphone, a message and organizational discipline that gives him maximum opportunity to shape his largest policy rollouts.
Over his tenure, Hogan and his team successfully withheld from public view his plans to build a new American Legion Bridge, his push to widen Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway, his stadium negotiations with the Washington Redskins and land-swap talks with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
His support for the Purple Line was a mystery until he announced it, as were his executive order pushing the start of the school year beyond Labor Day and his proposal to extend paid sick leave.
When Hogan announced plans to close the Baltimore City jail in 2015, he acknowledged he didn’t consult other politicians because — as the Baltimore Sun reported at the time — “he wanted to ‘make this decision without it being interfered with by politics.’”
“He didn’t call members of a state commission who had studied the issue. He didn’t tell the mayor of Baltimore. He just did it,” the paper reported.
This habit may vex other government leaders Hogan has to do business with, but it enables him to control the storyline in key situations.
“Message discipline and building a narrative, and then executing the plan, comes directly from the governor,” said Douglass V. Mayer, a Republican strategist and Hogan’s former communications director, in an interview on Monday. “It’s something he’s been known for for a long time.”
“The reason this stuff doesn’t leak is you’ve got a highly competent staff that believes in what they’re doing,” Mayer added.
But if Hogan’s preference for pre-announcement secrecy comes with a cost, it’s in the potential damage it does to the relationships the administration has (or might benefit from having) with policy-makers in the General Assembly and local government, those officials say.
The governor’s high-profile announcement in Washington, D.C. with Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam (D) last week came amid negotiations between the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Those talks, regarding the state’s plans to widen I-270 and I-495 — and parkland the state is likely to need — have yet to yield a breakthrough.
Bethesda Beat reported that county officials were given “no advance notice” of the Hogan/Northam announcement, a lack of communication that left them “frustrated, confused and unable to respond to details of the plan, which is likely to reignite a political controversy over widening certain sections of I-495.”
“It’s frustrating,” Carol Rubin, a special project manager for Montgomery County and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission for the I-495 & I-270 Managed Lanes Study. “We could have been standing up there together. But that seems to be the [modus operandi] of this administration — just taking us totally by surprise.”
Hogan is “strong on flourish,” conceded Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker (D), a former state legislator.
“Is there a cost? Of course,” he added. “Throughout inter-governmental relations you want to believe that you’re getting the whole story — and that your negotiating partners are not hiding things from you and holding some other secret negotiations with other parties that you’re going to be asked to sign off on later on.”
By keeping plans to a small group of trusted aides, the Hogan team is able to avoid waking up on the morning of a big announcement only to find that their news is already being reported by the media, taking the steam out of their event.
Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce President David C. Harrington said Hogan “comes off as somebody who wants to control the narrative and doesn’t want anyone else to interpret [his agenda] for him.”
“I think he’s playing it well. It may sort of annoy some people, but that annoyance is not going to go to a level where you’re going to call out the governor,” added Harrington, a former state senator and County Council member.
“What he’s doing is leveraging his authority for the pot of money that he has at his control and his position as chairman of the Board of Public Works, where frankly that squelches any sort of outcry.”
Hucker, who chairs the Montgomery County Council’s transportation committee, said the state’s continued reluctance to keep local leaders in the loop flies in the face of a commitment he said was made in June at a Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis.
“(They promised) a more collaborative approach, working with local governments. But here we are, five months later, and there hasn’t been any glimmer of that,” Hucker said.
Mayer, the governor’s former chief spokesman, dismissed the criticism.
“In general, the people who complain about the governor’s team’s message discipline are usually folks who don’t like him or what his agenda is in the first place,” he said. “But Marylanders seem to like it just fine.”