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Government & Politics

Senate’s New GOP Leaders Pledge Cooperation But Vow to ‘Fight Back’ When Necessary

Left to right: Republican Sens. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., Michael J. Hough, Bryan W. Simonaire and J.B. Jennings following the GOP caucus meeting last fall where Simonaire and Hough were elected to replace Jennings and Hershey in their leadership posts. Senate Republican Caucus photo.

The Maryland Senate’s new Republican leaders are more conservative than their predecessors ― but say they still plan to collaborate with their Democratic colleagues during the 2021 legislative session.

New Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire of Anne Arundel County and Minority Whip Michael J. Hough of Frederick County have both been strong conservative voices during their time in the legislature, and their selection as caucus leaders for this session highlighted Republican worries about a leftward shift in the Senate.

Simonaire said the Senate has “lurched” to the left during his time there. A senator since 2007, Simonaire recalled a time when many bills attracted strong bipartisan support. Now, he said most votes fall along party lines and Republicans continue to find themselves deep in the minority.

Democrats have a 32-15 majority ― enough to override a gubernatorial veto without Republican support ― in the Senate. But Simonaire argued that the makeup of the Senate doesn’t accurately reflect the state’s political orientation.

“Nearly half the people in Maryland are not in the Democratic Party,” Simonaire said. “They need a voice down in Annapolis, and we’re going to fight relentlessly for them and for the policies that they believe in.”

Caucus members chose Simonaire and Hough to replace former Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) and Minority Whip Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) last October.

Hough and Simonaire are both seen as more conservative than their predecessors. Jennings was personally close — and often deferential — to former Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D). Hershey in the past couple of years has caught conservative ire for his social media posts criticizing President Trump.

Through his legislative career, Simonaire has been a leading conservative voice on social issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Hough has been a vocal defender of Second Amendment rights and in his day job works as chief of staff to right-wing U.S. Rep. Alex X. Mooney (R-W.Va.) — a former Maryland senator and GOP chairman.

The move to install more conservative leadership was seen by some as Senate Republicans’ attempt to push back on the perceived leftward shift of the Senate Democratic Caucus after the election of Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) in the fall of 2019.

But Hough and Simonaire said they’ve met with Ferguson several times, and that they plan on working closely with Democrats during the upcoming session. On the day the duo were selected the lead the GOP caucus, Ferguson traveled to Annapolis to congratulate them and said he would work “collaboratively” with them.

“Since their election, we have had productive conversations, and I am looking forward to working with them on behalf of all Marylanders,” Ferguson told Maryland Matters.

Simonaire echoed the sentiment.

“I pride myself throughout the years to be able to work on both sides of the aisle,” Simonaire said. “And we want to continue that.”

While Hough and Simonaire are both seen as stalwart conservatives, the pair have shown a willingness to work with Democrats before. Simonaire was one of the few Senate Republicans to sign onto a bill banning fracking in 2017, which Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) eventually embraced.

Former state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who resigned in 2019, was the chief Senate sponsor of the fracking bill and worked closely with Hough on the Judicial Proceedings Committee during his time in the legislature. Zirkin recalled Hough’s willingness to work with him in passing the state’s 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, which included sweeping bipartisan criminal justice reforms.

Hough was “instrumental” in turning the criminal justice reform package into a bipartisan effort, Zirkin said. Zirkin noted that he and Hough were often on opposite sides of debates, but described Hough as willing to reach across the aisle and find common ground.

“At his core, Mike cares about public policy,” Zirkin said.

Hough noted that he’s had “good personal relationships” with his Democratic colleagues in the past, but said he’s worried that the Democratic supermajority will be tempted to “steamroll” the 15-member Republican caucus during votes.

“I’m not going to stand there and let people steamroll over us and our constituents and the things we believe in,” Hough said. “We are going to fight back, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Hough and Simonaire plan to push back on calls to override Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sweeping ― and expensive ― education reform plan passed last year. Hough, who supported the bill last year, said the financial strain brought on by the pandemic should lead legislators to take another look at the multibillion-dollar reform effort.

“When we voted through Kirwan, the world was much different,” Hough said. “Let’s just face it. I mean, we were in the very early stages of COVID. No one knew what was going to happen.”

Education and Maryland’s budget have both undergone massive change since the legislature passed the Kirwan reforms, Hough argued, and passing the reforms as they were before the pandemic would be fiscally irresponsible.

Simonaire called the General Assembly “a graveyard of unfulfilled promises,” referencing the Bridge of Excellence education reforms in 2002, which he called a “failure.” He wants to take another look at Kirwan to see whether it needs revised after the pandemic.

“There is nothing in there about virtual learning,” he said. “I think we need to go back to the drawing board, because we as Republicans support a world class education, we just want to make sure we get the world class education that’s promised.”

The pair said they’ve been in touch with Hogan in the leadup to the session — he’s the headline attraction at a fundraiser for the Senate GOP caucus on Tuesday afternoon — and have had virtual caucus meetings to discuss legislative strategy. As part of that strategy, Simonaire worked with Ferguson to get some caucus members assigned to new committees.

Other political observers said the Senate’s new dynamic won’t become clear until session begins. Just because a legislator behaves a certain way before they’re elected to a leadership position doesn’t mean they’ll keep it up, said Patrick J. Hogan, the vice chair of the Maryland State Board of Election and former state senator who switched from Republican to Democrat midway through his legislative career.

“People operate a certain way when they’re in different positions,” he said.

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