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Commentary Election 2022 Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: Groundhog Day for Hogan and the Democrats

Governor Hogan in the Old Senate Chamber
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) delivered his final State of the State address Wednesday night from the Old Senate Chamber at the State House. The themes in the speech — and the Democratic rebuttal — were familiar. Photo from the Executive Office of the Governor.

How fitting that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) delivered his eighth and final State of the State address on Groundhog Day.

Hogan and Maryland Democratic leaders have been in an awkward, unchanging dance from the minute the governor took office, and this week’s posturing over the State of the State served as a reminder that while Democrats have the numbers in the General Assembly, Hogan has the bully pulpit, a flair for the dramatic, and superior political skills that enable him to win the PR wars just about every time. His message has barely evolved over the past eight years.

Hogan’s mastery of stagecraft took him to the Old Senate Chamber on Wednesday, where George Washington came before Congress to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783, for a virtual evening speech. Unlike regular, pre-COVID-19 State of the State speeches, which take place before a joint session of the General Assembly at high noon, lawmakers were absent — just the way Hogan likes it.

Not even Hogan has the chutzpah to directly compare himself to George Washington; that would be too unseemly. But just as Barack Obama invited comparisons to Abraham Lincoln, by being another lanky president from Illinois who happened to schedule events in settings that would evoke Lincoln’s history, Hogan did seem to enjoy the venue. A Washington statue was in the frame, just behind him, and Hogan segued from his denunciation of Democratic gerrymandering to name-checking our first president, with a nod to his own possible national ambitions.

“In his farewell address, George Washington warned that partisanship would create a ‘spirit of revenge’ that would undermine the ‘reins of government’ and lead to the ‘ruins of public liberty,'” the governor said.

“My fellow Marylanders, in this historic place where the founding principles of American democracy were born, and here in our great state where Francis Scott Key wrote of a flag that was still there, where Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman forged the path to freedom, where Thurgood Marshall fought for equal justice under law, we still believe in the power of coming together to change things for the better, and we still believe that what unites us is greater than that which divides us.

“To those who say that America is too divided, that our political system is too broken and can’t be fixed, I would argue that we have already shown a better path forward.”

Hogan’s enduring and remarkably high poll numbers continue to keep Democrats off balance. Democrats may win elections and policy battles and they may succeed in their redistricting gerrymanders, but they haven’t laid a glove on Hogan and it seems unlikely that they will before he leaves office next January.

Poetically, the Maryland Democratic Party’s “prebuttal” to Hogan’s speech went into the spam folder of my email on Tuesday. The subject line was, “THE REAL STATE OF HOGAN’S STATE.”

What failures are the Democrats trying to pin on Hogan?

“Here are the facts Marylanders won’t hear at his State of the State: Hogan has badly mismanaged the response to the COVID pandemic, proposed slashing funding for schools and public safety, and is facing a series of escalating scandals,” Maryland Democratic Chair Yvette Lewis said in a statement. “At every turn, Hogan has used his position to try and benefit himself and push the agenda of his Republican Party. Marylanders deserve better.”

Hogan drove a different narrative. His speech was 20 minutes of back-patting and truth stretching. There were a plethora of familiar themes, about saving the economy, moving swiftly to address the pandemic, providing record levels of  tax relief, and operating in a bipartisan manner. Partisan attacks quickly followed. There were also familiar lines that could have been delivered any time during his seven years in office, and have been, ad nauseam: “43 consecutive tax hikes,” “Rain Tax,” “the biggest economic turnaround in America,” “We changed Maryland for the better,” and so on.

“Our mission was to change Maryland for the better, and tonight, I’m proud to report that we have done exactly what we said we would do, and because of that, the state of our state is strong — by any measure, stronger and better than it was when we began our mission,” Hogan said.

The speech also included several Hogan chestnuts that he’s pushed pretty consistently during his tenure and will spotlight for the rest of this year’s legislative session: More tax relief, re-introduced bills to crack down on violent crime, and the newer “refund the police” initiative, which, by his account, is taking root in “some of the most progressive cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.”

The Democratic response and the fight ahead

Democrats used one of their brightest lights, Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), to counter Hogan’s address. Smith did fine in his 10-minute summation, recorded more than 24 hours before Hogan spoke. It was enhanced by being staged in the fancy new Senate media center.

Smith did get some good whacks in, blaming Hogan for the breakdown of the state’s unemployment system during the worst of the COVID economic downturn, “botched transit investments,” and “core functions of the government” that have failed under the governor’s watch. He was especially withering about Hogan’s lack of “engaged, energetic and collaborative leadership.” That’s one of the great untold stories of Hogan’s tenure, since he has rarely bothered to push his initiatives in the legislature and instead prefers social media, interviews with friendly radio hosts and showy news conferences to the extent that he works his agenda at all.

Of all the Democratic candidates for governor, Wes Moore was quick out of the gate with a critique of Hogan’s speech, talking about how the administration has failed the state’s neediest families and is seeking to cut education funding for the state’s biggest majority-Black jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. The other Democrats were strangely silent Wednesday night.

Yet the grim reality for Democrats is that Hogan’s poll numbers remain astronomical. Heck, if he was eligible and ran in this year’s Democratic primary for governor, he just might win. If anything, his approval ratings among Democrats often eclipse his favorable numbers with Republicans. Go figure.

In years past, Hogan’s high approval ratings barely mattered in the overall political dynamic of the state. They were all about Hogan and had no wider impact. But this year, with the race underway to replace him, they probably do matter. And here’s where the Groundhog Day metaphor can be extended — and ought to make Democrats very worried.

Former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz, running as the heir to the Hogan legacy, has begun referring to the the state’s gasoline tax, which rises annually at a rate pegged to inflation, as the “Inflation Tax.” I’ll wager a day doesn’t go by between now and Election Day that she won’t be talking about the inflation tax. That’s a nifty slogan no doubt cooked up by the same Hogan advisers who gave us the “Rain Tax” eight years ago.

In a tweet last week, Schulz sought to link the two. “Only in Annapolis could they think of such ludicrous taxes,” she wrote. “While they were passing O’Malley’s Rain Tax, the same partisan legislators also pushed through not only a gas tax but one tied to inflation. So when inflation increases, the gas tax increases.”

To reinforce Schulz’s rhetoric, state Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) has introduced a bill to ban the annual gas tax hike and freeze the tax at its current level. Asked last week if his bill includes a mechanism to increase the gas tax at some point, if that’s needed, Hough said he isn’t interested.

It’s unlikely that his bill will pass — see the aforementioned Democratic dominance of the legislative agenda in Annapolis — but Hough and his fellow Republicans, including Schulz, will surely score political points as inflation and gasoline prices continue to rise.

On Twitter, Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), the chair of the transportation panel on the House Appropriations Committee, recently challenged Schulz and other Republicans to refrain from attending ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonies for transportation and infrastructure projects paid for by the gas tax if they aren’t willing to supplement it every year. Good luck with that.

The gas tax went up under Hogan’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, after remaining static for more than 20 years. It’s one of those 43 O’Malley tax increases that Hogan references incessantly. But Hogan and other Republicans have profited politically from that extra infusion of cash on a pretty regular basis.

Just another Groundhog Day reminder of the governor’s dexterity and political skill. If you listen to Schulz or follow her on social media, you’ll discover she’s sticking as close to Hogan as humanly possible during the pandemic. In the hours before the State of the State, Schulz was calling Hogan “a transformational leader.”

“I was honored to work with Gov. Hogan over the last seven years to make our state the most improved for business in the entire nation, to turn around our economy and to deliver the largest tax cut in state history,” she wrote. “As your next governor I will continue to build upon this success.”

Just how much Hogan transformed state government and Maryland writ large is truly debatable. Most of the Democrats running for governor actually are offering transformational change — the very type of bold advancements that took place in the O’Malley era, which voters rebelled against in 2014 and may not be clamoring for now.

If Punxsutawney Phil had a Maryland equivalent, he’d tell us we have at least nine more months of this — and maybe, if the Democrats remain as overconfident as they seem, four more years.