Josh Kurtz: Hogan, By the Book

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) meet the press at Government House in Annapolis last year, when Christie came to town to promote his book. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has always had an unmatched sense for knowing just where the Maryland electorate is and how to position himself squarely in the middle of it.

It helps explain why he has been able to remain so popular since taking office in 2015.

But can Hogan maintain his finely-tuned political antenna on a national scale?

That’s one of the main questions surrounding our term-limited governor as he begins to take some not very tentative steps toward exploring a run for the White House in 2024.

The rollout of his soon-to-be-released book, “Still Standing: Surviving Riots, Cancer, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics that Divide America,” has gone pretty well so far. Hogan is getting attention in the national media along with several write-ups in The Baltimore Sun, and The Washington Post on Thursday ran an adapted excerpt of his book detailing his efforts to obtain COVID-19 testing kits from a South Korea company. In an era when Americans get a daily dose of chaos and crazy from the Trump administration, so far so good.

Hogan has profited from being more or less in the “Never Trumper” camp. When it comes to preparing for and addressing the COVID-19 crisis, Hogan has done well – especially when compared with the national response.

Hogan seems to be in line with most mainstream Democratic governors in the U.S. when it comes to the pandemic — and that’s noteworthy when Trump and so many other Republican governors are choosing to ignore or minimize the danger, resulting in mind-numbing cases of illness and death.

Is Hogan to be praised for resisting the kooky Republican orthodoxy of the moment? Or is he merely at the baseline for what a competent and compassionate chief executive ought to be doing?

Whatever the answer, Hogan has won plaudits from the national punditocracy and numerous Democrats for his performance.

But attention from pundits and a perceived level of sanity only goes so far in this current political environment. It may get you invitations on “Meet the Press” and CNN, but does it get you any closer to winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2024? Or is Hogan merely the latest incarnation of Jon Huntsman and John Kasich, GOP governors who were media favorites but whose White House campaigns fizzled?

So Hogan has his book, which, his protestations to the contrary, serves as an early toe — more like a shin — in the 2024 presidential pool.

We’ve only seen a bit of Hogan’s book so far — it’s not officially due out until July 28.

We’ve seen that adaptation in the Post — Hogan’s account of obtaining the Korean test kits — and we’ve seen the Sun‘s summaries of Hogan’s telling of the 2015 unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.

Until we see the book in full, it’s hard to say just what its tone is going to be. The segment on the Korea test kits is an exercise in triumphalism, as his press appearances were when he first made the announcement in April. If the Sun‘s accounts of Hogan’s recollections of the Baltimore unrest are accurate, Hogan sounds a little combative and snippy.

None of these descriptions should come as any surprise to anyone who has followed Hogan’s political trajectory in the 21st century. Even through his regular-guy sheen, he is prone to self-congratulation and at other times can be brutish and snippy.

It’s worth noting that Hogan’s memoir was co-written by Ellis Henican, a journalist and former Newsday columnist who also co-wrote former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s autobiography, “Let Me Finish: Trump, the Kushners, Bannon, New Jersey, and the Power of In-Your-Face Politics.” Christie, a mentor to Hogan, can also be combative and snippy, of course, and governed with a chip on his shoulder, much as Hogan does.

Henican himself probably knows a thing or two about having a professional chip on his shoulder, because his well-written columns at Newsday were often overshadowed by the presence on the Newsday staff of legendary columnists Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton. It’s tough to be a very good ballplayer when you’re surrounded by Hall of Famers.

It’s entirely likely that Hogan’s book will shift its tone when he talks about his dad, the late Congressman Larry Hogan Sr. (reverential, no doubt), and about his battle with cancer, which he faced with humility, grace and good humor. But until then we’re left with what we see so far.

Well before the book, Hogan was harsh in his assessment of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s performance as mayor of Baltimore during the Freddie Gray trauma. So his attacks on her now, though spotlighted in the Sun, do not seem fresh, and if anything they’re maybe a little gratuitous.

More surprising are Hogan’s criticisms of President Obama, who, according to the Sun‘s account of the Hogan book, nudged him to take a less harsh attitude toward protesters. Hogan apparently did not appreciate this. He was dismissive of Obama’s attempts to guide “me, the rookie, white Republican governor who had recently defeated his candidate for governor of Maryland in this overwhelmingly Democratic state and whose majority-black, largest city was now in flames.”

Hogan is certainly entitled to his viewpoint of these events. And it may well be that Obama did take a lecturing tone with the new governor. Obama did that often enough with any number of people, and it was one of his least attractive characteristics.

But it’s interesting that Hogan decided to air these grievances in public right now. Last we looked, Obama was one of the most admired figures in America, and Hogan is certainly one to take stock in what polls say.

This may just be a rare opportunity for Hogan to throw some red meat to Republicans whose support he would need in 2024. A few swipes at Obama may produce some tsk-tsk-ing among the pundit class — and remember, Hogan’s pal Christie literally embraced Obama in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — but it may be worth it to score a few political points and burnish the “tell it like it is” persona that Hogan has fashioned for himself.

Hogan frequently preaches bipartisanship and civility in politics – a practice he himself does not always follow, at least not in Annapolis. That’s a conversation for another day.

Yet in his writings and national appearances, Hogan is quick to blame Democrats and Republicans equally for the dysfunction in Congress. That equation doesn’t quite add up.

Are there demagogues, showboats, disruptors and jerks among the Democrats in Congress? Of course. But congressional scholars like Norman Ornstein and James Thurber generally agree that Republicans on Capitol Hill have done far more to poison the atmosphere than their Democratic counterparts. You’ll never hear Larry Hogan acknowledge that.

In fact, Hogan has found a recent foil in Nancy Pelosi, calling her out of touch for her shrugged response when she was asked about the July 4 toppling of the Christopher Columbus statue in Baltimore’s Little Italy, where she grew up. Blasting Pelosi is the oldest Republican play in the book and another nod to GOP enthusiasm for law and order. Won’t Hogan be surprised when a Pelosi statue is someday erected in Little Italy?

Hogan attracted a lot of attention in 2016 when he announced that he wrote in his dad for president and could not support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Asked by Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” Sunday how he was going to vote this November, Hogan lamented the dilemma he and many Americans face.

“I feel like I’m in the same position I was in four years ago,” he replied, adding, “I think people would look to see something different, and maybe we will in 2024.”

But Biden is broadly acceptable

That’s a very 2016 response to a 2020 question, leavened with a nod to 2024. A lot of voters thought the choices were terrible in 2016. But while Biden seems hopelessly retro and as embarrassingly gaffe-prone as ever, and may not engender a ton of enthusiasm, he has become broadly acceptable to a huge swath of the American electorate — especially to many of the “Never Trumpers,” who are simpatico to Hogan and whose support he craves. Heck, some prominent Republicans are actively working for Biden now.

So here too Hogan appears a little tone deaf. Unless, of course, this is another cheap and easy way to score points with potential Republican primary voters four years from now. Any suggestion that there’s an equivalency between Trump, whose performance over the last few months has literally cost American lives, and the “Leave it to Beaver” dad Biden, even for a lifelong Republican like Hogan, is a terrible stretch.

Over the next few weeks, Hogan is going on a virtual book tour with the likes of Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. None is likely to endorse Biden this fall, but they probably all privately agree that a Biden presidency represents less of a threat to the Republic than four more years of Donald Trump. That’s an aspirational crowd for Hogan to hang out with – and we’ll see if he benefits.

As Hogan prepares for his book tour, he can’t be happy about the Wall Street Journal report this week, followed a few days later by a Baltimore Sun piece, offering more detail on how the Republican-connected firm Blue Flame Medical LLC, got such a lucrative contract from Maryland to provide masks, ventilators and other personal protective equipment — even though the firm only started up as the pandemic hit, had flimsy credentials, and sought to take advantage of political connections to get contracts from a few state governments but didn’t deliver the promised materials.

The conduit for the shysters at Blue Flame, according to the newspapers, was Tiffany Waddell, the state’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

“Please meet a good friend of mine, Mike Gula,” Waddell wrote in an email to Ellington Churchill, the Department of General Services secretary who leads procurement for the state government. She made similar introductions in other states.

The Hogan administration declined to comment for the Journal story. In the Sun, Churchill chalked up the flawed contract with Blue Flame to the chaos of the pandemic, and noted that the lion’s share of Maryland’s attempts to purchase vital goods and services during COVID-19 have worked well.

For those who pay attention to such things, The Wall Street Journal article was written by a fellow named Brody Mullins, an excellent investigative reporter who has reported about money and politics for two decades. Some people may recall a very flattering profile of Hogan that Washingtonian magazine ran on Hogan in 2017, as he was ramping up his re-election campaign. Ironically and coincidentally, that article was written by Luke Mullins, who happens to be Brody Mullins’ brother. (Disclosure: I worked with both at Roll Call on Capitol Hill many years ago.)

The Mullins giveth and they taketh away. National media attention, as Hogan no doubt is already discovering, has its pleasures and its pitfalls.

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