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Political Ambition and Criticism of Trump: The Almanac of American Politics on Hogan

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) outside an April meeting he convened in Annapolis of other governors and members of Congress to discuss bipartisan federal infrastructure proposals. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Today Maryland Matters offers a profile of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) from the newest edition of The Almanac of American Politics, the classic political reference book for political junkies.

And in case you missed it, click here to read the advance copy of the almanac’s view on Maryland’s changing politics, demographics and economics, which we published Monday.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, Republican Larry Hogan enjoyed a wave of media exposure that other potential presidential aspirants could only envy. As chair of the National Governors Association when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, Hogan was omnipresent on the TV talk show circuit and the beneficiary of a succession of laudatory print and online profiles: His advocacy of a consistent and coherent national strategy contrasted with the mixed messaging coming from the White House of President Donald Trump. “I pushed back very hard when there was no testing program and there was no availability of basic supplies,” Hogan later recalled to the Washington Post. “There were a few times the president bristled when I wasn’t saying everything was great. One time the president said on a call, ‘You’re not being very nice to me.’ I said, ‘No, Mr. President, I’m always nice. I’m just telling you what the governors see.’”

The famously thin-skinned Trump may have been recalling that Hogan, a year earlier, had toyed with the idea of challenging him for the Republican presidential nomination. Ultimately, Hogan opted to defer such ambitions. But, as he completed his year-long term as NGA chair, Hogan stepped up his criticism of Trump on COVID-19 as well as other fronts— one of the handful of prominent Republicans willing to do so. “There’s no question in my mind that [Trump] was responsible for inciting this riotous mob,” he asserted on CNN following the January 2021 storming of the Capitol. As the first GOP governor to win reelection in solidly blue Maryland since the 1950s, Hogan has sought to position himself as a steady, pragmatic antithesis of Trump: Facing the Democratic-dominated legislature during his 2019 State of the State address, he touted Maryland as a national model, declaring, “a divided government does not have to be a divisive government. … We found a way to disagree without being disagreeable.”

For many leading Democrats, the portrait of recent life in Annapolis has tended to be less rosy. They have criticized Hogan for alternately ignoring or attacking them— recalling occasions such as in 2019 when, after the legislature declined to go along with a Hogan plan aimed at crime in Baltimore, the governor snapped, “This seems to be like the most pro-criminal group of legislators I’ve ever seen.” Some have likened Hogan to tough-talking ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a one-time mentor to whom Hogan still talks frequently. For his part, Hogan has attributed the blunter aspects of his modus operandi to an enervating battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015, six months into his first term. “It changed me as a person and the way I look at life and what’s important. And maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m not afraid to stand up and say what I think,” Hogan told National Public Radio in 2020. “Cancer is pretty scary. Nothing else really is going to scare me away from anything.” Hogan remained cancer-free at the five-year milestone of his diagnosis, and his political health during that period has been excellent as well, with polls regularly putting his approval rating at or above 70 percent.

Throughout his two terms, Hogan’s policy agenda has remained tightly focused on pocketbook issues. After blasting his immediate predecessor, Democrat Martin O’ Malley, for “40 consecutive tax increases” over eight years, Hogan has boasted of holding the line on further hikes, although many of his tax cut proposals have gone nowhere. Noting that polling has found Maryland voters view the amount of taxes they pay as ‘too high,’ Goucher College political scientist Mileah Kromer added, “When they look at this moderate Republican governor, [they see] a check on the Democratic legislature – and also a check on increasing taxes.”

Hogan, a successful real estate broker, is the first Maryland governor in the modern political era without prior experience in elected office, buttressing his claims to not being a career politician. But such self-depictions underplay the degree to which he grew up immersed in politics. As a teenager in Prince George’s County, he spent weekends on Capitol Hill where his father, Larry Hogan Sr., served in the House. The elder Hogan achieved national attention in 1974 as the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to vote for all three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. In 2016, after announcing he would neither endorse nor vote for Trump, the governor wrote in his father’s name for president, six months before the elder Hogan’s death at 88.

By the time of the Nixon impeachment proceedings, the younger Hogan was in Florida, where he had moved with his mother following his parents’ divorce. He graduated from Florida State University before returning to the Washington area to work as a congressional staffer. The elder Hogan was elected Prince George’s County executive in 1978, and the younger Hogan was hired as his intergovernmental liaison. He took time out to run in a 1981 special election when his father’s former congressional seat came open, finishing second in a 12-way Republican primary for the seat ultimately won by Democrat Steny Hoyer, now House majority leader. In 1992, Hogan made a second bid for Congress, challenging Hoyer after the latter’s district was redrawn. Hoyer was reelected, but by the narrowest margin of his career, 53%-44%.

Hogan’s real estate firm foundered in the wake of a series of bank failures in the early 1990s. After declaring personal bankruptcy in 1994, he rebuilt the Annapolis-based business. In 2002, he helped Rep. Robert Ehrlich become the first Republican elected governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966. Hogan took a leave from his business to serve as Ehrlich’s secretary of appointments. After Ehrlich was ousted by O’ Malley in 2006, Hogan contemplated running in 2010 before stepping aside for an unsuccessful comeback bid by Ehrlich. A year later, Hogan began laying the foundation for a 2014 gubernatorial run by founding Change Maryland, an anti-tax group.

He won a four-way Republican primary with 43 percent, but started the general election behind in the polls by double digits. The collapse of the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, was largely attributed to what was seen in party circles as one of the most poorly run campaigns in recent state history. Brown did little to define himself, confidently assuming that the huge Democratic edge in state voter registration would sweep him into office. In a difficult year for Democrats nationwide, tepid turnout in Democratic bastions such as Baltimore and the Washington D.C. suburbs proved insufficient to make up for landslide Hogan margins elsewhere. Hogan won, 51%-47%. (Brown staged a comeback in 2016 by winning a seat in Congress.)

In 2018, former NAACP national president Ben Jealous won an eight-way race for his party’s nomination. Jealous emerged with his campaign treasury drained while Hogan, unchallenged for renomination, was flush with cash, ultimately outspending Jealous 3-1. The Republican Governors Association also spent $3 million. In his first bid for elected office, Jealous’ political inexperience surfaced during several incidents, and he made little effort to expand his base beyond party progressives. Hogan won, 55%-44%, with polling showing Hogan capturing nearly one-third of the Black vote against the former civil rights leader.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, economically troubled Baltimore, the state’s largest city, yielded the biggest crisis of Hogan’s tenure. In April 2015, rioting broke out following the death of a Black man, Freddie Gray, while in police custody. Hogan later complained that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, failed to return his phone calls for two hours as the rioting spread. According to Washingtonian magazine, when he did reach her, Hogan told her he had two draft executive orders in front of him, one saying he was declaring a state of emergency and deploying the National Guard “at the request of the mayor of Baltimore,” the other that he was doing so on his own authority. “But either way, we’re coming in,” Hogan told Rawlings-Blake, adding, “she calls back in 14 minutes and she says, ‘Since you have a gun to my head and since you are going to do it anyway, I guess I’ll ask you to come in.’”

Hogan’s often scratchy relations with Democratic legislative leaders have generally been most intense when the General Assembly sought to curtail gubernatorial prerogatives. In 2016, Hogan compared the legislators to college students on spring break. “They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony,” he said.

In the face of Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, Hogan has had limited success on some fronts. In 2020, the legislature passed an overhaul of the state’s public school system, at a cost of $4 billion a year when fully implemented, based on the recommendations of a commission headed by former University of Maryland System Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. Hogan derided it as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission” and vetoed the bill. He then revived the “Change Maryland” organization to underwrite a media campaign, but the legislature overrode the veto anyway.

Hogan has increasingly sought to compromise or pre-empt Democratic moves, particularly on environmental initiatives. During the 2014 campaign, Hogan favored hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to tap into natural gas reserves in western Maryland. Three years later he announced he would support a permanent ban even before legislation reached his desk. In 2016, Hogan vetoed legislation requiring that 25 percent of Maryland’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020; the veto was overridden. In 2019, he allowed a bill mandating 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030 to become law without his signature.

As Hogan emerged as spokesman for the nation’s governors after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he won Democratic praise for his response in Maryland. Hogan issued a statewide stay-at-home order at the end of March 2020, while sternly rebuking those who defied restrictions and reinforcing those warnings with arrests and fines. Maryland became the second state to close its schools. Hogan’s order followed minutes after a similar one in Ohio. The early blowback came largely from conservatives within his own party: Three Republican state legislators filed suit charging that Hogan’s actions violated their constitutional rights. Eventually, tensions with Democrats reemerged, as Hogan, in late summer 2020 and again in early 2021, prodded local jurisdictions to reopen schools, a move resisted by leaders of several large counties hard hit by the pandemic even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed school reopenings.

Early in the pandemic, Hogan had purchased 500,000 COVID-19 test kits from a South Korean firm, with an assist from his Korean-born wife, Yumi, who as the first Korean first lady in U.S. history had become something of an icon in her native country. After weeks of negotiations, the tests were flown to Baltimore and secured at an undisclosed location by the Maryland National Guard. Hogan later acknowledged fearing the federal government might try to seize them. An irritated Trump, upon learning of Hogan’s gambit, told a White House briefing that Hogan “didn’t really understand the federal testing capacity” and “needed more knowledge.”

Declared Hogan: “The [Trump] administration made it clear over and over again they want the states to take the lead, and we have to go out and do it ourselves, and that’s exactly what we did.” But the initial public relations coup Hogan scored with the nearly $9.5 million purchase later dissolved amid controversy. Questions from state legislators about whether other supplies necessary to utilize the tests had been obtained, and if the tests had actually been deployed, went unanswered for weeks. Seven months after they were delivered, a Washington Post investigation revealed that the test kits had turned out to be flawed and had been quietly swapped out for a similar number of replacements at the cost of another $2.5 million, a development Hogan had failed to disclose.

A month after winning reelection in 2018, Hogan spoke to a Washington right-of-center think tank critical of Trump. He made a trip to Iowa, where the first delegates to the 2020 Republican National Convention would be chosen. After telling the Associated Press that he was not interested in a “kamikaze mission,” he announced in June 2019 he would not mount a primary challenge to Trump. “I’m not going to say I won’t run in the future,” Hogan told the Baltimore Sun, as he published a memoir entitled, Still Standing: Surviving Cancer, Riots, a Global Pandemic and the Toxic Politics that Divide America.

The term-limited governor threw cold water on speculation that he might run for a Senate seat. “I have no interest in the Senate,” Hogan told the Sun, while adding, “I want to have a future in the Republican Party. More importantly, I want the Republican Party to have a future. I believe in a bigger tent.” Hogan later told The Washington Post he won’t decide about a 2024 presidential run until after his second term ends in January 2023. “There’s going to be a fight for the soul of the Republican Party,” he said. “There are an awful lot of people in one lane fighting to take on the mantle of Donald Trump. I would argue that I’m one of the leading voices on the other side to say that we’ve got to move in a completely different direction.”

In light of the state’s 2-1 Democratic registration advantage, Democrats see Hogan’s impending departure from Annapolis as a prime opportunity to reclaim the governorship. Four-term state Comptroller Peter Franchot announced his bid in early 2020, and as many as 10 other Democrats either had announced or were mulling a run, including two former Obama administration Cabinet members.

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Political Ambition and Criticism of Trump: The Almanac of American Politics on Hogan