Hogan Plays It Close to the Vest as Neall’s Retirement Looms

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announces the first three known cases of COVID-19 in Maryland at a news conference in March. Also in the photo: the state's then-public health chief Fran Phillips, and Health Secretary Robert R. Neall (in camelhair jacket). Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) is playing it close-to-the-vest when it comes to announcing Maryland Department of Health Secretary Robert R. Neall’s replacement.

Neall’s retirement goes into effect on Tuesday, and as the clock ticked closer to midnight, no one seemed to know when the announcement will come or who will win the appointment: Not representatives from House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones’ (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson’s (D-Baltimore City) offices, nor Senate Executive Nominations Committee leaders, who will be tasked with confirming or denying Hogan’s appointee.

“Totally a blank on all those issues,” Executive Nominations Chairman Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) said Monday.

And the not-knowing transcends party lines: Republican leadership in the General Assembly has no clue either.

“Haven’t heard a thing,” said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel).

In the midst of a pandemic, which worsens as days go on, Neall, a lifer in Maryland’s political scene, gave Hogan and his fellow cabinet members three-weeks’ notice of his departure.

“We weren’t ready to announce this yet today, but I can confirm we just had an emergency cabinet meeting this afternoon where Secretary Bobby Neall, who has been a long-time friend for decades and who’s done an incredible job leading a wonderful team of people throughout this crisis, he gave us notice … that he’s leaving the administration,” said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) at the end of a news conference in mid-November.

Neall’s reasoning? He’s tired. 

“These last three years, though trying, have been very rewarding and I simply do not have the strength and vitality to continue,” he told the Joint COVD-19 Response Legislative Workgroup in November. “You have to know when to say when.”

Neall is tapping out after more than 40 years as a public servant, representing Anne Arundel County in the state House and Senate, as county executive, and everything in between, flip-flopping his party affiliation along the way. 

He’s also not the first to step down from the Department of Health since the pandemic reached the state 10 months ago. 

Former Deputy Secretary of Public Health Services Fran Phillips announced her retirement in late July, and Gregg Todd, the former deputy secretary of operations, accepted a position as controller for Ingraham County, Mich., over the summer.

Philips’ vacancy was filled by Acting Deputy Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan, and Todd was replaced by Atif T. Chaudhry.

But the name of Neall’s replacement remains a mystery to political heavy-hitters, some of whom think his shoes will be difficult to fill.

“No, I have to say the governor doesn’t call me for advice and I think Bobby Neall will be hard to replace,” said Senate Health, Education and Environmental Affairs Committee Chairman Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). 

Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard and Baltimore County), a public health doctor, said the piece that’s lost in Neall’s departure is the amount of respect he has garnered from having “been around the block quite a while.”

“I think it’s going to be a real challenge to find a replacement for him that carries that gravitas,” Lam said in a phone interview Monday.

Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci told Maryland Matters in an email that he expects an update on Neall’s replacement “as early as” Tuesday.

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