In the shadow of the nation’s storm-tossed political epicenter, Larry Hogan’s governorship is seeming more and more like an intriguing test case for a radically different version of the Republican Party: What would it look like if a politician played to Trump’s electoral coalition while rejecting just about every element of the president’s personal style?
On a recent Thursday in the Maryland suburbs, I witnessed a scene that, in the context of American politics in 2017, can only be described as extremely strange. The occasion was a sold-out Chamber of Commerce function at La Fontaine Bleue, a dolled-up catering hall in Glen Burnie, used mostly for weddings and family celebrations. Hundreds of local business leaders crammed into the space during lunch hour, paying $650 a table to watch the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, step onto the stage with one of the most popular Democrats from liberal Montgomery County, state Comptroller Peter Franchot.
A Lincoln-Douglas debate this was not. The event marked the third in a series of carefully staged appearances the two men have been conducting around the state, involving a moderator, a couple of plush easy chairs and a little over an hour of brotherly, affirmational banter that felt a bit like a tag-team fireside chat. At a time when national politics is brimming with partisan vitriol — occasionally tinged with bursts of rage and even violence — here sat two of Maryland’s leading statewide vote-getters, one Democrat and one Republican, touting the idea of bipartisanship as if it were an earthshaking archaeological discovery.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that, even though we don’t agree on everything, what we do agree on is not to tear each other down in public,” Franchot told the crowd.
To which Hogan gamely replied, “He said we publicly don’t tear each other down. But we don’t tear each other down in private. We actually like each other!”
“And our wives like each other!” Franchot added.
“We both married up,” said Hogan, bringing a warm round of laughter.
Repeatedly during the event, Franchot took on the task of bashing the Democratic power brokers in Annapolis — part of the duo’s well-honed good-cop, bad-cop routine.
“There’s a certain arrogance down there,” he said. “The legislature is so infected with partisanship in the backrooms that …”
Right on cue, Hogan cut in to soften the message. “But here’s the good news, if I can,” he said.
“Save me from what I’m about to say,” Franchot replied, smiling.
“The good news is, there were some folks in the legislature who said at the beginning of the year that their primary focus was to attack me, hurt me politically for next year’s campaign. To focus on Washington and Donald Trump. And we totally ignored them and completely stayed focused on Maryland.” Hogan argued pointedly that these early attempts from Democrats to tie him to Trump hadn’t succeeded. “In fact, we went up in the polls,” he said. “I had the second-highest favorability of any governor in the country. So they can keep attacking me if they want, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”
Hogan’s approval rating did dip a bit this year; nevertheless, it remains stunningly high. Hillary Clinton may have won Maryland last year by 26 points, and when Hogan ran for governor in 2014, Maryland was the state with the nation’s highest percentage of registered Democrats. …
… Hogan has two powerful, though seemingly contradictory, things going for him. On the one hand, he was elected by the same category of voters who, from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Wisconsin, would later vault Trump to the White House: a potent wave of disaffected blue-collar and suburban whites. On the other hand, he has worked to create a personal brand that is affable, bipartisan and pragmatic — pretty much the opposite of Trump. “Nobody is a bigger critic of Trump than I am. I consider him to be a reckless and vulgar individual,” Franchot told me. “And I find Governor Hogan to be about as far removed from him in how he interacts with people, the respect he has for people, the public interest that he expresses from his perspective — I think he is as far removed from Donald Trump as anybody could possibly be.”
And so, in the shadow of the nation’s storm-tossed political epicenter, Larry Hogan’s governorship is seeming more and more like an intriguing test case for a radically different version of the Republican Party: What would it look like if a politician played to Trump’s electoral coalition while rejecting just about every element of the president’s personal style?
When I interviewed Hogan in May, he was taking a break from a day of appearances in Baltimore. Meeting me in the stately 23rd-floor suite he uses when he’s in Charm City, he let out a laugh when he saw two press staffers trailing me into his office. “They’re worried I’ll say something wrong,” he joked.
Hogan does not look as polished as he did when he was elected in 2014. He was thinner then, with a robust head of combed-back silver hair. A cancer diagnosis that came less than five months into his term stripped him bald. He now wears his hair in a buzz cut, and he carries more weight in his gut and neck. He knows he looks older and a bit heavier but seems not to mind. These days, the guy who ran for office as a frustrated Everyman looks more the part than ever.
Much has changed for Hogan since early 2014, when the commercial real estate executive began holding private discussions with close friends and confidantes. Over dinner at a McCormick & Schmick’s in Oxon Hill, he broached the subject of running for governor with his longtime friend Timothy Maloney. A lawyer and former Democratic legislator in Prince George’s County, Maloney had quietly advised generations of politicians, including the term-limited Democratic incumbent governor, Martin O’Malley. “I started laughing and laughing. I said, ‘Larry, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,’ ” Maloney recalls. “And Larry was laughing, too. But then I noticed that he wasn’t laughing quite as hard as I was.”
When Hogan entered the race, he decided lower taxes and more jobs would be his message. (To this day, it’s hard to spend five minutes with him before he turns the conversation to his belief that Maryland previously had a dismal reputation within the business community.) One of his advisers, Russell Schriefer, says that he, too, initially doubted Hogan’s chances, as he would with any Republican running in a state dominated by Democrats. But he was impressed by Hogan’s message discipline. As the campaign heated up, his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, wanted to force Hogan to defend national Republican rhetoric on guns and abortion. But Hogan refused to engage. “He had this really very intense focus on taxes, the economy, on bread-and-butter issues that average Marylanders cared about,” Schriefer says. “And he continued to stick with it and not get involved in outside issues.”
As would be the case with Trump two years later, Hogan was a massive underdog. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano — an outsize personality who has been close to Maryland politicians from both parties — became an early follower. He says he started seeing signs that Hogan might outperform expectations at the July 4 parade in Dundalk, a blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood of formstone rowhouses brought low by the closing of the Bethlehem Steel factory. The parade is a can’t-miss event for politicians, with 10,000 people lining Belclare Road and Liberty Parkway. Hogan zigzagged along the winding route to shake as many hands as he could. Bereano remembers at some points seeing people grab Hogan and yank him into the crowd. The lobbyist recalls being stunned by the warmth of the reception: “I mean, you would think he was Bruce Springsteen.” At the end of the route, Hogan climbed into a campaign RV parked in front of Dundalk Elementary School. Exhausted, he dropped into a captain’s chair, turned to his supporters and blurted out: “Man, I think we’re going to win this thing.”
With the vote drawing near, conventional wisdom continued to favor Brown. But about two weeks before Election Day, a group of top Maryland Democrats, led by then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, met with the state party’s chief pollster, Fred Yang. Democratic House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch was one of those seated around the table. “The pollster was giving us a rundown and the room was silent,” Busch remembers. “I was thinking, This is not good.”
Busch showed me a photo taken the morning of Election Day on Main Street in Annapolis — the heart of his own legislative district. He was in the midst of his voting-day routine, stopping at coffee shops and restaurants to say hello and remind people to vote. He stepped into Chick & Ruth’s deli, and there was Hogan. In the photo, Hogan is beaming. Busch is standing behind him, forcing a smile. He told me that wasn’t how he was feeling. “I don’t think anybody knew at the time what the outcome was going to be,” he recalls. “I had seen the numbers. … People were tired of government telling them what to do. They felt like these guys [in office] aren’t responding to me. They only take care of themselves. It was a groundswell. You could see it happening.” It was, Busch says, “the beginning of what we now know is the Trump revolution.”
At some level, the similarities between Trump and Hogan are inescapable: Both are conservative, straight-talking businessmen with backgrounds in real estate. Both entered politics as outsiders who gave voice to a frustrated working class but forged common cause with corporate executives. Yet their personas couldn’t be more different. To understand what separates the two men, it helps to start with Hogan’s father. In July 1974, Larry Hogan Sr., a three-term Republican congressman from Southern Maryland, rose from his seat on the House Judiciary Committee to address a nation he called “troubled and divided” — and became the first Republican on the committee to recommend impeachment for President Richard Nixon.
The younger Larry Hogan was only in high school at the time, but the moment clearly left an imprint on him. When his 88-year-old father died this past spring, Hogan reflected on that moment in his eulogy, delivered at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis. “Despite tremendous pressure, this statesman put aside partisanship and his own personal ambitions and he made the tough decision,” the governor said. He then quoted directly from his father’s famous floor speech: “Party loyalty and personal affection and precedents of the past must fall, I think, before the arbiter of men’s action, the law itself. No man, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.”
After college in Florida, Hogan came back to Maryland to work for his father, who had by then become the county executive of Prince George’s — a successful Republican in a county dominated by Democratic politicians. Hogan bunked with a group of friends in what could only be described as a makeshift fraternity house. Maloney, then a hard-charging young Democrat, was one of his five housemates. In 1980, the two hatched a plan to remake the Prince George’s County Council by passing a ballot initiative that would reduce the number of council members from 11 to nine and force them to run in distinct districts. The idea — to lessen the influence of machine politics — benefited both Maloney (an outsider) and Hogan (a Republican). “It’s hard to get something on the ballot,” Hogan recalls, “but Maloney and I did it.” To the surprise of the establishment, the measure passed. At age 24, Hogan had run his first successful campaign.
The experience served as a preview of Hogan’s future governing style, which has tended to favor the practical over the partisan. “That’s how I lived most of my life,” he says, thinking back on that early victory. “Most of my friends were all Democrats. I’d have been a lonely guy if I only hung out with Republicans.”
While he used his deep knowledge of planning and zoning to launch a real estate business, he kept returning to politics. In 1981, he ran unsuccessfully for his father’s former congressional seat, finishing second in a packed Republican field. Eleven years later, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress again — scaring Democratic incumbent Rep. Steny H. Hoyer with the narrowest victory of his long tenure. Eleven years after that, Hogan joined the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., accepting a post overseeing hundreds of patronage jobs. “Every decade I might dip my toe in the waters of politics,” Hogan says. “But it wasn’t my life.”
Hogan described to me a weekend morning not long after his father’s funeral. He was sinking into an easy chair in the basement of the governor’s mansion — he calls it his “man cave” — wading through the stacks of “homework” his staff leaves for him most evenings. On CNN, pundits discussed the news that Trump had just fired the FBI director. When Hogan looked at the television screen, he caught an unexpected sight. A grainy image of the House Judiciary Committee was serving as a backdrop to a report on the echoes of past scandal. “I looked up and there’s my dad,” he recalls.
In seeing it, he seemed to understand that his father’s role in Watergate had the potential to become an inescapable ghost for him. People around him, he says, have already started to wonder openly if a moment will come when he, like his father before him, will be driven to buck his party and turn on the president. “Everyone’s talking about it, and they are making comparisons,” Hogan told me. “I’ve thought a lot about the magnitude of that moment and how important and tough a decision it was that he made.”
Hogan is trying not to focus on this latest presidential drama. But he says he still feels his father’s presence in the way he approaches politics every day. “Even though it’s 40 years later, and a lot’s changed over that time, the basics are the same,” he explains. “You focus on things everyone cares about and you don’t constantly pick fights with people because they’re in the other party. And you look for areas of agreement, try and find common ground, common-sense solutions. I think that’s what he tried to do back then, and it’s what I try to do now.”
Among Hogan critics, his pragmatic approach to governing has been described as “Don’t sweat the large stuff.” More air conditioning in Baltimore County schools was one crusade. A shorter school calendar starting after Labor Day — aimed at helping fuel Ocean City vacation businesses — was another wildly popular move, even as it angered some education advocates. One of the most indelible images of his first term was a photo Hogan has posted repeatedly on Facebook showing him leaning out of a Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll booth in a dark suit with sunglasses. It highlights his move to reduce highway tolls across the state. Democratic critics complained about lost transportation revenue. But on a crowded holiday weekend, there’s just nothing partisan about lower tolls.
Hogan told me he tries to push only those proposals he cares about deeply. “If there’s something I believe in, I fight hard,” he says. “But I’m not — if you notice with the legislature, I don’t swing at every pitch.” He doesn’t have much of a choice but to proceed with caution. Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly, which handcuffs his ability to pass legislation. I asked Busch what he thought Hogan’s most significant legislative achievement was, and he sat silent for an uncomfortably long time. Rather than answer, Busch told me he believes Hogan’s list of legislative accomplishments is padded with bills Democrats already planned to approve — such as a ban on fracking that Hogan joined midway through the process, and a bill promoting electric cars that had initially passed in 2007 and needed only to be reauthorized.
During the 2017 legislative session, Hogan posted periodic “Bipartisanship Alerts” online to tout these victories. Yet whether he is genuinely interested in bipartisanship is a source of intense debate in Annapolis. That is especially true among Democratic lawmakers who say they have experienced steady tension with the governor. All three years in office, Hogan has clashed with them over a school-choice bill he pushed that would expand Maryland’s use of charter schools. With the teachers union lobbying hard, Democrats beat back several of Hogan’s education proposals. At one point earlier this year, he called in local news cameras to attack a bill that would establish the standards the state could use to identify failing schools but prevent the state from turning them into charter schools. Hogan decried it as “one of the most outrageous and irresponsible moves that our legislature has ever taken.” He accused Democrats of blocking him “from taking any substantial action to make any improvements to persistently failing schools.” (He vetoed the measure, but the legislature overrode it.)
His pro-charter agenda has aligned him with Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos. When I interviewed Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for the teachers union, the Maryland State Education Association, he made a point to note that one of Hogan’s top education advisers, Jason Botel, had left the state to join the Trump administration. And Democrats jumped at the opportunity to draw parallels when DeVos drove to Bethesda in March to tour a public school with Hogan at her side. Their caravan arrived at Carderock Springs Elementary School to find 150 protesters blocking the entrance and chanting, “Public schools are a public good!” Hogan and DeVos had to walk through a back entrance.
Hogan’s approach to immigration has been similarly polarizing. In March, he learned of reports that a 14-year-old student at Rockville High School had allegedly been raped by two older students, both of whom were said to have entered the United States illegally. When Hogan made his first public comments on the case, he pointedly raised the accused perpetrators’ immigration status. “It appears as if this was part of the Obama, unaccompanied-minor kind of amnesty program where they allowed these kids to come in,” he told reporters. The alleged rape, he said, demonstrated the dangers of a pending “sanctuary” bill meant to put limits on the role of local law enforcement in immigration matters. That legislation had passed through the Maryland House the evening before — at what Hogan called “the worst possible time ever … a few days after this girl was brutally raped by these two young men who were in this country illegally.”
The comments stirred anger from some quarters. Chris Lloyd, a teacher and president of the Montgomery County Education Association, told me that when he heard the remarks, he feared a backlash against Latino students. He blamed the governor for creating real danger by using the incident to make a political argument. The instinct, he says, reminded him of the man in the White House.
Over the coming days, Hogan dialed back his tone, telling reporters he wanted “to let everybody do their jobs.” He set aside talk of the legislation in Annapolis, and his office has since said the anger he flashed during his initial response was aimed at the school system. “The governor was responding to widespread calls from the local community for information which was not forthcoming from the school system at the time,” says Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse. Six weeks later, prosecutors announced they had dropped the sex-assault case against the two teenage immigrants.
The episode highlighted what one of his advisers told me is a hallmark of Hogan’s tenure: For better or worse, he follows his gut. “He’s very candid and it’s not calculated,” says Mike Leavitt, a consultant based in Maine who advises Hogan, along with a number of blue state Republicans. “My experience has been, he’s going to say what’s on his mind regardless what anyone else suggests.”
But those instincts often lead him to the political center rather than the hard right. They apparently guided him to skip the 2016 Republican National Convention. As the GOP gathered in Cleveland to nominate Trump, Hogan stood on the busy median of Interstate 270 in Rockville. With local news cameras rolling, the governor handed a giant check to Montgomery County officials to bring attention to a $229.6 million plan to ease traffic backups. Hogan told me the timing of the event was a coincidence; savvy political observers in Maryland see it differently. “I think it was done on purpose to show, ‘Hey, I’m not in Cleveland,’ ” Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) told me. “ ‘I’m in Montgomery County with money.’ ”
As the 2016 presidential election approached, Hogan announced he would not vote for Trump — and he ended up writing in his father’s name instead. Since the election, he has treaded a fine line when it comes to Trump, generally keeping his distance but also stopping well short of outright war with the administration. “I think my opinions are fairly well known,” he said when I asked him about Trump. “I have almost no relationship with Washington or the president.”
In Annapolis, Democrats have introduced a succession of measures intended to force Hogan to take a position on Trump’s immigration and health-care proposals. One resolution created a fund to allow the Maryland attorney general, a Democrat, to sue the administration without Hogan’s prior approval. Throughout, Hogan tried to maintain the same message discipline he employed during the campaign. “They’re demanding I protest Trump every day,” he said at one point during our interview, sounding mildly irritated. “That’s not what people elected me to do. They elected me to run the state, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
If Hogan does further distance himself from Trump, it would arguably be in keeping with the nonpartisan, regular-guy persona he has created for himself. Joan Cadden, a former Democratic state delegate who for years ran a beauty salon in the blue-collar Baltimore suburb of Brooklyn Park, says Hogan’s popularity has soared in her neighborhood. “He’s a real down-to-earth person. That’s why everybody likes him,” she told me. “You know, he’s a good man. I don’t always agree with all his politics, but he’s a good man.”
On Opening Day at Camden Yards last year, instead of heading straight for a luxury box, Hogan started in front of Pickles Pub and walked to the outfield bleachers in an Orioles jersey, posing for what he estimated was more than 4,000 pictures with fans. I asked Hogan about that day. “People were like, ‘Nobody ever comes down here,’ ” Hogan said, chuckling at the memory. “I just like being with people more. And people seem to sense that I care about them and that I’m one of them.” In many of the photos posted on his Facebook feed, he is holding a can of National Bohemian beer, a local favorite. “He does come across as an Everyman,” Busch, the Democratic House Speaker, says. “A regular Joe. I think it serves him well.”
This spring, Democrats around Maryland started hosting gatherings to mark the unofficial launch of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Inside the crowded ballrooms, party activists were not hiding their simmering anger toward Trump. At the celebration dinner for the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee, the Rev. Henry Green offered a most unusual invocation, asking: “How do we pray when we feel surrounded on all sides by people of the lie?”
The dinner was oversold, and several people had to eat standing. Democrats who harbored plans to run for governor worked the long, winding line to the bar. The former head of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, leaned his large frame down to talk with a councilman. State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. from Montgomery County handed out stacks of freshly printed business cards identifying him as a candidate. The county executives from Baltimore and Prince George’s counties, Kevin Kamenetz and Rushern L. Baker III, occupied corners of the reception hall, encircled by party insiders. When Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez took to the microphone to rouse the crowd, he made no secret of the message his party would be sending in Maryland. “Where is this governor when Donald Trump is an affront to our values?” Perez asked. “He’s got a sock in his mouth.”
John Willis, the former Maryland secretary of state, is one of several party insiders working on blueprints for the upcoming campaign. He has studied the numbers from 2014 and noted that voters from both parties — dismayed by inaction in Washington — turned out in record low numbers. Republican turnout was low, “but Democratic turnout fell off the table,” he told me. “Literally, it was the lowest percentage of Democratic voters ever.” Four years later, Democrats will be counting on anti-Trump sentiment to bring those numbers back up.
The strategy could certainly succeed, but if it fails, the implications would reverberate well beyond Maryland — and well past 2018. Hogan himself has never professed a desire for national office, and his version of center-right pragmatism is, today at least, very much out of fashion in Republican politics. Yet his success, if he continues to succeed, would demonstrate that it is possible to win in a state as blue as Maryland by combining Trump’s outsider-populist appeal with a softer edge.
On the stage at La Fontaine Bleue, the traveling roadshow was nearing its end. Comptroller Franchot was taking repeated potshots at his fellow Democrats, when finally the governor interrupted. He’d had enough. “We’re not going to say anything more about how bad the partisanship is. I’m done with all that,” Hogan declared. “Despite some of the yelling and name-calling that they do in the paper, they actually are working across the aisle and getting things done, more than almost anyone before.”
Democratic Del. Pamela Beidle walked out of the catering hall seething at Franchot. But not at Hogan. “If he’s going to win again,” she said of the governor, “he knows he has to just keep on being the good guy.”
The Washington Post
August 3, 2017