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Commentary Government & Politics

Josh Kurtz: The Sunshine Boys

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Gov.-elect Wes Moore (D) share a laugh during a discussion with reporters in Annapolis. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

As he was preparing to leave office in 1986, former Gov. Harry Hughes (D) received a parting gift from Democratic voters: 14% of the vote in the primary for U.S. Senate, placing him a distant third.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) left office in January 1995 bitter and annoyed after a 40-year political career though that in some ways was his everyday state, and he unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to grab the political spotlight again 3 1/2 years later, when Comptroller Louis Goldstein (D) died.

Former Govs. Parris Glendening (D) and Martin O’Malley (D), after eight years in Government House and long careers in local government, were partially blamed for the defeats of their chosen successors, in 2002 and 2014, respectively. And voters booted former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) from office in 2006.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is departing under vastly different and sunnier circumstances. He leaves office with otherworldly job approval ratings, as he is only too happy to point out. And while he has been around politics all his life, and aspired to be a member of the political leaders’ club for a long time, he has only been an elected official for eight years meaning he’s leaving office a lot less broken and burned out than his immediate predecessors.

“Turns out I’m pretty good at this politics business,” Hogan told his favorite interlocutors, Clarence “C4” Mitchell IV and Bryan Nehman, on WBAL Radio last week.

Turns out, he is.

Give the man credit: He saw an opening, sensed voters’ dissatisfaction with O’Malley and the perception of activist lawmaking in Annapolis and drove right through it. He radiated the persona of a genial everyman every day, even though he could be prickly about small criticisms and demanding on his staff. He could perform small acts of kindness, even when the camera was off. He confronted cancer with courage and openness, and, combining his own innate political instincts with volumes of polling data, he always had a sense of where most Maryland voters were.

Hogan also benefited from being underestimated, during the 2014 campaign and beyond. Now he’s a political force and very possibly a legitimate White House contender in 2024. At the very least, he built himself into someone whose opinions on the future of the national Republican Party will be regularly sought. Who would have predicted that eight years ago?

Taking stock of Hogan’s policy chops and legacy at home, however, is another matter entirely. Hogan and his fans point to cuts in taxes and regulations, improving the state’s business climate, and his handling of the Baltimore unrest of 2015 and the COVID-19 pandemic as major achievements. And his mastery of social media and use of the bully pulpit were unprecedented.

But the fact is that Democrats who dominate the General Assembly were able to get just about everything they wanted over the past eight years, even if they occasionally had to delay their initiatives by a year to override Hogan’s vetoes.

Hogan touts a spirit of bipartisanship in Annapolis over the past eight years, but that isn’t quite right; Democrats did their thing and Hogan did his, creating, in a sense, a happy medium.

And while Maryland Republicans have a few appealing young leaders in far-flung corners of the state, they are more irrelevant now than they’ve been for a long time.

Hogan blames Donald Trump for the GOP’s struggles, nationally and at home, and dismisses any talk of his own culpability. One wonders what his legacy will ultimately be, other than popularity for popularity’s sake.

It’s entirely likely that we’ll learn more about Hogan’s job performance soon, when we see how his successor, Wes Moore (D), deals with the problems Hogan is leaving behind  like a hollowed-out state bureaucracy, a woefully inadequate Baltimore-area transit system, and an unfinished and flawed plan to ease traffic congestion in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, to name a few.

And now, here we are, at the dawn of a new age in Maryland, with a new governor set to take over. In certain surface ways, the contrasts between Hogan and Moore couldn’t be greater. But both are obviously pretty good at this politics business. Both have expertly crafted their political and personal narratives. Both are clearly driven, ambitious and focused.

Expectations for Moore are high in part because Democrats in Annapolis are so anxious to work with one of their own after eight years of Hogan, but also because Moore has promised to recast state government and make it more diverse, inclusive, innovative and responsive. And then there’s Moore himself  dashing, eternally upbeat, something different and new, with an inspiring life story. And it’s hard not to get excited, even for inveterate cynical observers of state politics, by the history that’s about to be made.

Larry Hogan grew up as the son of a successful politician. Wes Moore grew up facing far more obstacles in life. But it’s been a long, long time since Moore has been underestimated, and he’ll have to meet those high hopes from the moment he takes office. It will be his toughest assignment yet.

When Larry Hogan was sworn in as governor in 2015, the weather was cold and snowy, the wet flakes resembling a nuclear fallout a searing metaphor for dejected Democrats. The forecast for Wednesday in Annapolis: Above-average temperatures and morning fog giving way to golden sunshine.