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Election 2022 Government & Politics

Postcard from Ocean City: It’s like there are two governors attending MACo

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore greets Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D) at a fundraiser for Moore in Ocean City on Thursday. Gardner backed a Moore Democratic primary opponent, Tom Perez, but there don’t appear to be any hard feelings. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has been making his usual rounds at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City this week. He spoke at the conference Thursday morning, and hosted a party for more than 1,000 people at Seacrets on Wednesday night, where hundreds of admirers lined up to take pictures with him. He walked the boardwalk Thursday afternoon and stopped by the Taste of Maryland reception in the convention hall Thursday evening.

Throughout the week, he has had meetings and been making public appearances up and down the Eastern Shore. He’s scheduled to visit the MACo exhibition hall in the Roland Powell Convention Center on Friday morning and will appear at the conference crab feast that evening, where he’s sure to be surrounded by well-wishers once again. He’s also hitting the after-hours party circuit.

Yet despite Hogan’s popularity — both with the general populace and with the political and business leaders who populate the conference and all its associated events — the political gravitational pull has shifted perceptibly in Ocean City this week. With Democratic gubernatorial contender Wes Moore also on hand — hosting a fundraiser Thursday evening, stopping by a full complement of political and special interest group receptions — the spotlight has clearly moved from the man who has been governor for the last 7 1/2 years to the man who is likely to be the next one.

Everywhere he’s gone in Ocean City this week, Moore has received the rock star treatment. He’s been mobbed by excited elected officials, staffers, lobbyists and business executives. He’s been smothered by hugs. He’s had dozens of business cards pressed into his hands. Some otherwise world-weary public officials have gushed on social media about being introduced to Moore. And he’s greeted it all with his patented, high-voltage smile.

“He’s all over the place,” House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County), a key early supporter of Moore in the Democratic primary, observed in an interview Thursday.

Political candidates are always in abundance at MACo, but Moore seems to have achieved a special status this year. He’s probably the first presumed governor-in-waiting to attend the summer convention in decades. Most recent election cycles have seen close races for governor — and until 2014, the party primaries were held in September, after the conference. So the dynamic is entirely different.

What’s more, Moore’s Republican opponent, Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick), had yet to put in an appearance at MACo as of Thursday evening. He had told state Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Harford) that he’d attend his annual reception at Ropewalk on Thursday, but later sent regrets. He is scheduled to appear at a conversation with statewide candidates scheduled for the convention hall on Saturday morning (Moore is not).

Jones said that part of the excitement surrounding Moore’s appearances in Ocean City is from Democrats who are looking forward to the political changes that are coming to the state.

“For eight years, we’ve had a Republican governor,” she said. “People are just thrilled that we’ll have a governor with the talent of Wes. He says he’s going to leave no one behind and people sense that he really means it. He’s accessible and people appreciate that.”

But it isn’t just Democrats who are scrambling to say hello to Moore this week. Talbot County Councilmember Laura Everngam Price (R), the current MACo president, said she met Moore for the first time this week and was pleased that he visibly registered the significance of the position she holds.

“I think there’s a sense for sure [among elected officials and conference attendees] that the next governor is going to be Wes Moore,” said Price, who supported former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz in the GOP primary. “I really hope that he and our other new leaders — we’ll have a new comptroller and a new attorney general — understand what MACo is.”

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, the GOP nominee for comptroller, raised eyebrows Thursday evening by showing up at Moore’s jam-packed fundraiser at the Holiday Inn on 66th Street — the most high-profile Republican in attendance. Glassman, a popular veteran politician who has sought to distance himself from the extreme positions of Cox and Michael Anthony Peroutka, the Republican nominee for attorney general, said he came in part to say hello to his friends in attendance and because he’ll need to appeal to Democratic voters if he is to have any chance of defeating the Democratic nominee for comptroller, Del. Brooke Lierman, in November.

“I just thought I’d stop in,” said Glassman, who noted that he spoke to Moore a few weeks ago, after the primary.

Moore spent his entire fundraiser greeting a constellation of politicians, business executives, lobbyists and political operatives. He did not give a speech.

Introducing Hogan before his speech Thursday morning, Price was effusive in her praise, touting his “true commitment to a real partnership with local government.”

In an interview, Price said Hogan’s victory in 2014 was “a nice surprise” for Republican elected officials and that they looked forward to better collaboration with the state after what she characterized as former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s “top-down approach” to relations with local government. She said she also admired Hogan’s partnership with Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot on a variety of issues.

But even as he appeared at the conference Thursday morning and received the approbation of Price, Hogan in fact had a somewhat diminished speaking role. Traditionally, governors give the final address at the conference, late Saturday morning. But in some election years, MACo officials try to reserve that time for a candidate forum, and this year, five of the six statewide candidates, minus Moore, are scheduled to chat individually with Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood and Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer.

A Hogan speech was not even listed on the original MACo conference schedule, and Thursday morning’s program was dedicated to a keynote speech from Jason Broadwater, a business and economic development consultant. But the Hogan team put out the word that the governor would be delivering the “keynote address” that morning. At the appointed hour, Price said Hogan would offer “warm welcoming remarks.”

“You knew Gov. Hogan was going to be here,” Price told the crowd. “He’s been a fixture of MACo events throughout his tenure as governor.”

Hogan’s speech was a quick summation of his administration’s accomplishments, particularly with regard to creating a better business environment. It came complete with a reminder about the “43 tax increases” that were enacted under his predecessor. The governor also paid tribute to the local leaders and said that serving as governor “truly has been an honor of a lifetime.”

“There has not been a single day, good or bad, when I have not been humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve with all of you,” he said.

The cheers came loudest from Hogan cabinet members and top administration officials.

“That was bittersweet,” Price said when it was over. “You’re going to be a tough act to follow.”

Reaching out to Moore and thinking about the future

But Price is already assessing Hogan’s likely successor, and came away from her brief chat with Moore this week encouraged that he recognizes the work that MACo does in helping shape the agenda at the state and local levels.

“He processed that and said if there’s anything he could do, to let him know,” she said. “He seemed genuinely interested. The lightbulb went on.”

Organized labor, which, with the notable exception of the Maryland State Education Association, largely backed Moore’s Democratic primary opponent, Tom Perez, is also looking to strengthen its ties to Moore at MACo. Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland & D.C. AFL-CIO, attended his fundraiser Thursday evening, and said labor leaders have already had productive conversations with the nominee.

“It was helpful for him to see labor as who we are,” Edwards said. “We represent everybody from airline pilots to zoologists. So we’re not just one sector.”

Edwards noted that the next governor will have tremendous say over how the state spends “all the Biden money” that’s coming from the federal government, particularly for creating a clean energy workforce. “I definitely look forward to the partnership with Wes as Maryland receives all the Biden money.”

Moore and most Democratic officials and strategists are careful to say that they’re taking nothing for granted in this election — Hogan’s election in 2014 and President Trump’s election two years later serve as cautionary tales. And yet, many can’t help but look ahead.

“It could be really fun,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said about a potential Moore administration. “He comes into a healthy state. He could really do something because there’s so much money available.”

And while Hogan continues to travel the state, make policy pronouncements and assert that he plans to “run through the tape” when his term ends in January, Elrich, who has clashed with the governor, particularly on transportation priorities, cast Hogan as a lame duck because the legislature is not going to meet until next year.

“Hogan can say anything,” he said, “but he can’t do anything.”