Bill Clinton saved his presidency by heading to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building there 20 years ago. Former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco declined to run for a second term after the botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And last year, in a blatant misunderstanding of his job description, Missouri governor Jay Nixon prematurely pushed for “a vigorous prosecution” in response to last summer’s police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
The stakes for elected officials are never higher than crisis situations where public safety is on the line, and in the past couple of weeks, Maryland governor Larry Hogan has demonstrated remarkable leadership, street smarts, discipline, and operational and political savvy in coordinating the state’s response to the rioting in Baltimore. His actions in large part prevented Maryland’s largest city from destroying itself. “Governor Hogan [had been] on the job for 90 days, and he was able to help bring it together,” as Fox News contributor Dana Perino put it.
The state’s role in a disaster is indeed to “help bring it together.” It is the linchpin that coordinates the work done by local elected officials, public-safety agencies that are first on the scene, and FEMA and other federal departments and agencies that are dispatched for large-scale responses.
That’s what Governor Hogan did in Maryland the last couple of weeks. He was already prepared for the first night of the Baltimore riots, having mobilized state assets. When the call came from Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the state police, the National Guard, and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency were ready to assist local government and its public-safety agencies.
Issued a mere 30 seconds after the mayor’s request, the state’s emergency declaration amounted to little more than a formality, as personnel and equipment had been scaling up as events unfolded on on the streets of Baltimore. In the tense days following the worst night of riots, the governor reassured the public that the situation was under control.
Emergencies present government officials with a microphone through which they can inform an anxious public.
Hogan’s message discipline allowed everyone to take a breath, as the criminal-justice system will determine the course of future events. Unlike the more mundane issues that governors face, emergencies present government officials with an open mic through which they can inform an anxious public. Such communication is a critical component of emergency response, not just an opportunity for media exposure, though the platform can easily be abused or mishandled. Exhibit A is the Baltimore mayor’s bewildering comment that city officials gave protesters “space to destroy.”
Refusing to take the bait in front of numerous live television interviews, Hogan stuck to his message of restoring order to Baltimore and stood up for the nearly 200 businesses, many minority-owned, that suffered property damage and lost sales. Regarding Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent death, which sparked the riots, the governor said he didn’t want to “get into the case” pending against the six officers.
Yet he did not dismiss the protesters’ concerns, either: It was “necessary to address the underlying issues of a lack of trust between Baltimore’s African-American communities and police,” he said. There is no better way to say it.
It was on the streets of Baltimore, after the destruction subsided, that Hogan brought everyone together, ranging from the New Jersey State Police, called in to assist their Maryland counterparts, to the NAACP, faith-based leaders, and ordinary citizens. Many had never seen the new governor of Maryland, let alone seen him walking their neighborhoods in a jurisdiction that heavily supported his opponent in last fall’s election. Hogan stepped out of the comfort zone of the state capitol in Annapolis and set up operations in Baltimore the morning after the worst of the riots. The move showed respect for Baltimore and embodied the popular slogan “Maryland Unites,” which was making the rounds on social media.
As governor of California, Ronald Reagan called in the California Highway Patrol and the National Guard to quell riots at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. Explaining the reason for reinforcements, the future president said, “People cannot choose the laws they want to obey in the name of social protest.” Clearly defining the responsibilities of the Maryland National Guard and the state police, Hogan explained that “the right to demonstrate is a fundamental part of our society, but damaging property or putting innocent bystanders in danger will not be tolerated.”
Recently, our new Maryland governor marked his 100th day in office. As the last MSNBC camera crew pulls out of Baltimore and the rest of the media shift their focus to other matters, the results of Hogan’s leadership leave a lasting impression for everyone with a stake in his state’s largest city.