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Josh Kurtz: Political Sons and Their Fathers

Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. celebrates his election victory in November 2014 with his father, Larry Hogan Sr., by his side. Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

One of the things that aggravates me about Larry Hogan is his narrative about why he decided to run for governor. He was just a simple businessman, he explains, who became so frustrated with the direction of the state, and high taxes and stifling regulations, that he felt compelled to run and try to make things right.

Not true.

Hogan has been around politics his entire life, and has thirsted to be a player in the political game from a very young age. He relishes his time as a kid, helping his father, Lawrence J. Hogan Sr., run for Congress. He was active in the Young Republicans. He worked on Capitol Hill after college.

When his dad became Prince George’s County executive, Hogan the younger was a top aide and political enforcer. He ran for Congress twice, the first time when he was just 25 years old. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention four times. The last time there was major internecine warfare in the national Republican Party, during the 1976 presidential primaries, Hogan chose Ronald Reagan over Gerald Ford.

Reagan back then was making up stories about Black “welfare queens,” advocated privatizing Social Security, and argued that if the U.S. ceded control of the Panama Canal it was capitulating to the Communists. How do the Maryland Democrats who endorsed, enabled, and voted for Hogan square that away?

Hogan also worked as patronage chief for former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And in 2010, he was preparing to run for governor but deferred to his former boss when Ehrlich decided to take another stab at Martin O’Malley.

So please, please, do not buy into the story that an epiphany suddenly struck this humble businessman who was moved to risk it all by making an improbable and longshot bid for governor in 2014. That’s simply not the case.

Hogan has used his dad to great political effect throughout his political career. The younger Hogan likes to equate his willingness to speak out against President Trump with Larry Hogan Sr.’s decision to vote to impeach President Nixon in 1974.

That decision clearly cost the elder Hogan the Republican gubernatorial nomination that year. It isn’t clear yet whether his son has had to suffer any political consequences by being a vocal Trump critic. In fact, as a new Washingtonian magazine article suggests, it has enhanced his stature in Democratic-leaning Maryland. Hogan could become a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 as a never Trumper.

This wasn’t supposed to be a column about Larry Hogan. It was supposed to be a column about fathers — or missing fathers, something Hogan only experienced fairly late in life (though as a teen, his parents divorced and he wound up living with his mom in Florida for part of his high school career, and Hogan has said he hung around his dad’s political campaigns as a boy so he could spend more time with him).

When I went to a fundraiser for state House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) recently and heard most of the Democratic candidates for governor speak, I was struck by this: Three of the leading contenders — former U.S. Education secretary John B. King Jr., author and former nonprofit CEO Wes Moore, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez — all had fathers who died when they were young. And all are now building those sad facts into their own political narratives.

I knew this fact about each of them, of course. But there was something startling about hearing their stories back to back and publicly in a live and crowded gathering of candidates and Democratic activists.

Moore’s father, a Washington, D.C., broadcast journalist, died when his son was just 3, after being misdiagnosed in a hospital. Moore has used this circumstance to show he understands the fragility of life and how one tragic moment can shape an individual’s future forever. It’s also an opportunity for him to praise his mom — and brave single mothers everywhere.

King’s father died when he was 12, four years after King’s mother died. King uses his experience to talk about the value of education, and how, at the bleakest point of his life, teachers — and learning — helped save him from going astray.

Perez, whose father also died when he was 12, has talked about the disruption in his family’s life and about how their economic insecurities forced him to scramble and do odd jobs, including as a sanitation worker, to help pay for his education. His announcement video, released last week, features his daughter Amalia recounting how her dad showed up every Saturday to coach his kids’ sports teams, even if he was traveling for work all week.

Early tragedy in one’s life does not automatically lead to empathy. Growing up comfortable doesn’t mean you can’t be empathetic. Still, family tragedy in a politician’s life can create a certain authenticity and an ability to connect with voters in personal and meaningful ways.

Bill Clinton’s father died before he was born, and he grew up for a time with an abusive stepdad. When Clinton said, “I feel your pain,” you knew he meant it. Barack Obama has written movingly about his own fleeting relationship with his absent father, but still came off cool and aloof all too often.

No one wants to say a personal tragedy can become a political asset. But King, Perez and Moore all seem to have emerged as stronger and more compassionate individuals because they lost their fathers at a young age. And in this time of great trouble and uncertainty in the state, as they pitch themselves to voters, their personal stories will surely resonate.

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Josh Kurtz: Political Sons and Their Fathers