Josh Kurtz: ‘Still Standing’ Is Hogan’s Paean to Hogan

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) meets the press after his speaking gig in Manchester, N.H., in 2019. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

The secret sauce of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s political success as a Republican in Democratic Maryland, in the age of Donald Trump and the tea party, is the perception that he’s a moderate who works in a bipartisan fashion.

But how does he pull it off? What makes him appear to govern in this fashion?

We eagerly ripped through the governor’s newly published political memoir, “Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic, and the Toxic Politics That Divide America,” to see if we could learn his secret. Sadly, we were disappointed.

Make no mistake: It’s a pretty good read, breezy and pointed — not unlike Hogan himself. Props to his co-author, former Newsday columnist Ellis Henican, for capturing Hogan’s voice and making the account of his political rise interesting – even for those of us who know the story well by now.

What emerges more than anything in the book is how highly Hogan thinks of himself. Even with his self-deprecating Everyman shtick, Hogan is the hero of every anecdote, propelled alternately by guts or his unmatched gut political instincts, his leadership skills magnified by the trappings of office like the ability to turn on a siren and speed down the highway or mobilize the National Guard.

You’d barely know by reading through all 309 pages that there are thousands of other hardworking men and women in Maryland politics, toiling every day on behalf of the people at the federal, state and local levels.

With his poll numbers so astronomical for such a sustained period of time, Hogan has certainly earned the right to brag, and the reminders of his high standing in the polls, followed by the reminders of his landslide second-term victory in a big Democratic year nationally, seem to come every few pages in the autobiography. But we wondered again about his reputation as a bipartisan conciliator, because we found almost none of it in his book.

There are a few references in “Still Standing” to the Democrats who work for him. Keiffer Mitchell, now the governor’s legislative liaison who played a very prominent role in the state’s response to the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, gets especially glowing praise from his boss. And Hogan peppers his account with numerous references to his poll standing with Democratic voters and encounters with rank-and-file Democrats who express their high regard.

But as far as Hogan’s willingness and ability to work with Democrats in Annapolis and elsewhere, to roll up his sleeves and seek common ground, we mostly in the book get lip service and excerpts from some of his higher-profile speeches.

In fact, we found just two references to cooperating — sort of — with Democratic leaders. On page 203, Hogan writes, “One proud achievement was working with the Legislature to produce what became the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016, one of the most comprehensive overhauls of any state’s criminal-justice system.”

Recalling his first legislative session as governor, in 2015, on page 103, Hogan writes, “So, as we began to negotiate with Democratic Senate president Mike Miller and Democratic House speaker Mike Busch, they had the votes — but I had a secret weapon: the people of Maryland. They’d just elected me, hadn’t they?”

It was one of six references in the book to Miller, the former Senate leader whom Hogan has known since he was a kid in the 1960s. The longest passage is reference to a joke he tells at Miller’s expense at a national Irish dinner in Washington, D.C. There is no mention of Miller’s historic tenure as Senate president or his battle with cancer – though Hogan certainly has a kinship with other cancer survivors.

Busch rates two mentions in Hogan’s memoir – in the other he’s listed among the dignitaries attending the governor’s second inauguration. There is no mention of Busch’s record-breaking service or wrenching death on the next-to-last day of the General Assembly session in 2019.

Hogan does give a nod to the historic ascension of Busch’s successor, Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first woman and first African-American to hold the post (pages 270-271). But he mentions her in the context of his State of the State speech this year — her first presiding over the House chamber — and the warm applause he got by congratulating her.

Even Hogan’s closest Democratic ally during his tenure as governor, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), rates just one mention, on page 204 — a description of Franchot as his wingman on the Ocean City boardwalk in 2016 when Hogan announced that he was ordering school officials to start the academic year after Labor Day. Never mind that the idea came from Franchot, who had been hyping it for years.

In the entire book, the only other mention of a specific state legislator by name (on page 102) is House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), who is quoted by Hogan urging him to slow down when it comes to getting tough on structural budget deficits. Hogan erroneously states that he was the first governor in years to balance the budget, when in fact that’s required by law every year. Hogan delights, though, in the snappy football metaphor that his former communications guru Doug Mayer came up with in response to McIntosh.

But if Democrats are feeling like they’ve been given short shrift in the Hogan book, they can at least take comfort in knowing that Hogan gave even less attention to the Republicans who serve in the General Assembly. They rate not a single mention in “Still Standing.”

Hogan also tends to flick away other Democrats in his book. Anthony Brown, Martin O’Malley, Ben Jealous and Steny Hoyer are foils for Hogan’s heroic victories or near misses, but nothing more. Even President Obama, arguably the most accomplished and revered political figure in a generation, is taken down a few pegs by Hogan for lecturing him during the Baltimore unrest. And Hogan is withering in his assessment of former Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The Un-Trump?

To be fair, Hogan has plenty of criticism for President Trump, and that’s what captivates the national media these days. But that is offset to a degree by his praise in the book for Vice President Mike Pence, first daughter Ivanka Trump, and Hogan’s great friend and occasional Trump adviser Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who played an important supporting role in Hogan’s improbable victory in 2014.

The chapters — yes, chapters — about Hogan’s flirtations with running for president in 2020 read as if the whole nation, rather than a few Washington, D.C., journalists and pundits and political operatives — were hanging on his deliberations.

There are nevertheless some admirable — and even revealing — passages in Hogan’s book.

The section on courting his wife, Yumi, and her three daughters, is very sweet. Hogan clearly reveres his dad, the late congressman Larry Hogan Sr., and sees useful political parallels between Hogan the elder’s decision to take on President Nixon during the 1974 impeachment hearings and his own standing vis-a-vis Trump. Hogan also talks at length about the influence his late older sister, Terry, had on his life, and is quite candid about the devastating impacts of his parents’ divorce.

The chapters on conquering cancer will sound familiar to Marylanders but may be a revelation to others who were not aware of it. It’s clear from the telling that Hogan publicly downplayed some of the more debilitating impacts of his chemotherapy treatments while they were taking place.

But this is, plain and simple, a political book — an attempt to jump-start the conversation, before the 2020 election has even taken place, on what the future of the Republican Party might look like post-Trump. And it’s a way of ensuring that he’ll be part of that conversation.

On Monday, Hogan told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that he could be persuaded to vote for Trump in November.

That seems like a departure for a guy who has so assiduously tried to be the Un-Trump in the GOP. But Hogan, in his fertile political mind, is clearly developing a strategy for navigating nationally in the post-Trump world.

Hogan still has multiple disasters to manage at home during the COVID-19 crisis that Trump’s indifference and ineptitude helped exacerbate. But what’s abundantly clear from “Still Standing” is that Hogan is looking ahead to the next opportunity. How we, as Marylanders, fit into that vision, remains to be seen.

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.