Larry Hogan’s upset victory in the 2014 gubernatorial election didn’t just stun Anthony Brown, the perceived frontrunner in the race. It also derailed the plans of countless Democratic policy wonks and political operatives who anticipated landing plum positions with Brown in his expected administration.
Hogan did wind up picking some Democrats for cabinet positions and other top jobs — the pool of Republican talent in a Democratic state is limited, and Hogan wanted to signal his bipartisanship. Several leading Democratic policy experts found refuge in county governments led by Democratic executives.
Now, eight years later, with Democrat Wes Moore favored to win the November election to replace Hogan, many of these same Democratic political and policy mavens are contemplating life out of the wilderness — and possible high-level jobs with the Moore administration. And that could have a profound impact on what county governments look like.
As Moore made the rounds of the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention in Ocean City last week, it was striking how many people handed him business cards — and, on occasion, a resume.
“A lot of people are getting to know Wes,” said Richard Madaleno, the chief administrative officer in Montgomery County.
For his part, Moore said he isn’t thinking about putting together an administration yet, but is focused only on job number one: defeating Del. Dan Cox, the Republican nominee, and other candidates in November. But he did concede, when asked how he is planning for the likelihood that he’ll take the reins of state government, “I would love to be able to work closely with anyone.”
Even if Moore isn’t outwardly thinking about what his administration will look like, a lot of other people are, and last week’s MACo conference was Ground Zero for informed and uninformed gossip and speculation. John Willis, who served as secretary of state under former Gov. Parris Glendening (D) and helped Glendening assemble his administration, said the speculation is only natural and that the MACo conference, 2 1/2 months before Election Day, is the natural time and place for it to happen.
“There’s always a reshuffling — not just with elected officials, but with staff,” Willis said. “It will get more intense this winter.”
Maryland’s past three Democratic governors held executive positions in local government before winning statewide office. As a result, Glendening, a former Prince George’s County executive, and former Govs. William Donald Schaefer and Martin O’Malley, both former Baltimore mayors, had substantial and seasoned teams around them and took many of their colleagues with them to the State House.
Moore is a political novice, albeit one with myriad admirers, advisers and contacts with experience in federal, state and local governments — including Glendening, Willis and former top aides to O’Malley. He’s been in the military, worked in finance, started his own business, and run a large anti-poverty organization. He’s a nationally known author.
As a result of all of these experiences, Moore will likely cast a wide net to fill key positions, if he’s elected. But it seems inevitable that administrators and policy officials in Baltimore City and county government will be among his top targets.
Are Democratic county leaders ready for the possible brain drain?
Interviews last week with top county officials showed a combination of denial, resignation, pride and defiance. Most said, with varying levels of conviction, that they’re prepared for whatever comes.
“I am excited to be working with a Wes Moore administration,” said Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D). “I think we will work in synergy to move Howard County and the state of Maryland forward and make sure we have the best quality of life for all.”
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) said he isn’t thinking about losing top staffers to state government, but acknowledged that staff movement is unavoidable after an election.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some shuffling around, but no, I don’t worry about it,” he said. “There’s always a change between administrations and people have their careers to think about.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) conceded that the county government has already lost some talent to the Biden administration, and said service in the federal and state government is invariably going to have some appeal to policy experts. But Elrich, who is likely to win re-election despite leading the Democratic primary by the narrowest of margins, said he’s dangling the possibility of executing an ambitious second-term agenda on the local level to county staffers who might be tempted to leave.
“You’ll get more done here,” is Elrich’s argument. “There are some exciting things here that people are working hard on.”
Baltimore County Council Chair Julian Jones (D) says seeing county staffers advance to higher positions in other governments can be gratifying for local officials.
“I always support anyone who wants to do what’s best for them and their families,” he said. “It’s kind of like the tree of life. Some good staffers leave but new ones come in.”
Willis, who is executive in residence at the University of Baltimore School of Public and International Affairs, said the school has set up a training program with the idea of getting young people placed in state government. He likened the pre- and post-election jockeying for top positions in a new administration to the way a professional sports franchise is put together.
“Government and politics is similar in that turnover is a constant part of it,” Willis said. “It’s almost like a draft process. Who’s available, what kind of skills do they have? It’s going to be great fun to watch it unfold.”