No contest demonstrated the scope of the GOP wave in 2014 quite like the Maryland governor’s race. Maryland’s Republicans hadn’t won a statewide race since 2002, and no other state had a higher percentage of registered Democrats in its electorate. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee, charismatic African-American lieutenant governor Anthony Brown, was seen as a Barack Obama in training. When rallying his supporters before the Democratic primary, Brown declared, “We take that hill, and then we’ve got a little bit of a molehill to take in November.”
That molehill was Republican nominee Larry Hogan, who looked more like a midwestern tractor salesman than the ideal candidate for a coastal state that was nearly 30 percent African American and full of federal employees. But Hogan hammered Brown and the outgoing governor, Martin O’Malley, for tax hikes and residents’ moving elsewhere.
Hogan used a memorable recurring theme: “We’re the only state in the nation that taxes the rain.” In 2012, O’Malley had signed a bill that aimed to reduce runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. It required nine counties and the city of Baltimore to charge additional fees to those who owned roofs, driveways, sidewalks, and other surfaces that could create drainage and runoff to the bay. When Brown said he didn’t intend to raise taxes any further, Hogan reminded voters that O’Malley’s running mate had made the same promise four years earlier; Maryland had enacted 40 tax hikes in the interim.
Brown led every poll except the final one, which put Hogan up by five points. And indeed, when all the votes were counted, Hogan had won, 51 percent to 47 percent.
With large Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature, Hogan hasn’t been able to enact many sweeping conservative reforms. Even on the rain tax his success has been limited: He signed a bill allowing counties to repeal it, but if they do so, they must find another way to reduce their pollution and runoff. He’s acted more like a goalie, deflecting bad ideas and keeping the opposition from scoring. He vetoed a redistricting-reform proposal he deemed partisan, a bill to eliminate criminal penalties for smoking marijuana while driving, a $300 minimum threshold for asset forfeiture, and a restoration of voting rights to felons on parole. (He also vetoed legislation requiring paid sick leave and barring colleges from asking prospective students about their criminal histories, but the legislature overrode him.)
“There is a sense of more fiscal restraint,” says Robert Ehrlich, Maryland’s only other Republican governor since 1969. “We still spend a lot of money, and this is obviously a very hard-left legislature, but there’s at least a sense of a small-g governor on the system. With a progressive governor and legislature, it was out of control.”
Hogan has presided over economic good times. Job growth is twice what it was during O’Malley’s final three years. Container traffic at Baltimore’s port sets new records every year, continuing a trend that began in 2009. The Kauffman Index rated Maryland fourth in the nation for entrepreneurial business growth in 2017. “With nearly 150,000 jobs added on his watch, unemployment below the national average, and an improved business climate, Maryland is a stronger state today thanks to his reforms,” says Jon Thompson of the Republican Governors Association.
But it didn’t take long for Hogan to face the kind of crisis that can define a governorship. In April 2015, Baltimore police officers arrested Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, for possession of an illegal switchblade. While in the police van, Gray sustained injuries to his neck and spine and eventually lapsed into a coma. He died a week later, as Baltimore’s African-American communities denounced what they perceived as widespread and unmitigated police brutality.
On April 25, rock-throwing protests flared and temporarily trapped fans inside a baseball game at Camden Yards. Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake held a press conference and made an awkward, controversial statement: “It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” Meanwhile, in Annapolis, Hogan made sure the state police and state National Guard posts were on high alert.
Two days later, the protests morphed into some of the worst rioting in America in recent memory, with angry youths destroying police cars and torching buildings. Publicly, Hogan initially stood by Rawlings-Blake, saying she had “done a terrific job.” But after the crisis passed, he contended that the state police and National Guard had saved an endangered city while the mayor stood paralyzed.
“I called the mayor of Baltimore and said, ‘We are ready to act and assist in every way possible,’ and she said, ‘We don’t need your help. Everything is under control,’” Hogan recalled in a speech to the American Action Forum the following year. “I said, ‘It doesn’t look like it’s under control. It looks like the city is on fire.’” More than 200 businesses were destroyed, 150 vehicles were torched, more than 100 police officers were injured, and hundreds of people were arrested.
Hours passed and the violence on the streets did not abate. In Hogan’s version of events, he couldn’t reach the mayor for at least two hours. When he did get through, he found her in denial and infuriatingly indecisive. He told her he’d drawn up two executive orders, one declaring a state of emergency and deploying 2,000 National Guard troops at the mayor’s request, and another doing the same thing at the governor’s request. Hogan said that he preferred the actions to be at her request. After a 15-minute delay, she said to sign the one saying she had requested it; Hogan described her response as, “Since you are holding a gun to my head, and since you are going to do it anyway, I guess I’ll ask you to come in.”
“We sent in the troops, we stopped the violence, we stopped the burning,” Hogan recalled a year later. “Not another person was hurt, not another store was looted, there wasn’t a single injury, not a gunshot, not anything. We brought peace. The overwhelming presence had a chilling effect on the rioters and they went scurrying home.”
In other times and places, a white Republican governor deploying National Guard troops in a heavily African-American city to quell riots over claims of systematic police brutality could have created lasting cries of racism or authoritarianism. That most Marylanders were fine with Hogan’s actions is a grim testament to the way the rest of the state perceives its largest city. Meanwhile, Rawlings-Blake chose not to seek reelection in 2016.
“There is great frustration with Baltimore and its dysfunction that transcends party,” says Ehrlich. “Baltimore is a city with profound problems. Some on the left tried to make [Hogan] a scapegoat [for the riots], and that failed miserably.”
Shortly thereafter, another crisis struck Hogan. Six months into his governorship, he announced that he had been diagnosed with late stage-three non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He began an 18-week chemotherapy program, and by November, Hogan — his hair gone, his face puffy, and his skin red — stood before reporters at the podium again, cheerfully announcing he was cancer-free. Hogan’s public battle was heartbreaking, inspiring, and deeply human. This, along with his genial general attitude, makes him particularly difficult to demonize.
Not long after his recovery, the national political scene threw Hogan another curveball in the form of Donald Trump. Early in the 2016 cycle, Hogan endorsed a different blue-state East Coast Republican, Chris Christie. But when Christie dropped out and endorsed Trump, Hogan didn’t follow; by June he had seen enough to conclude he couldn’t. On Election Day 2016, Hogan wrote in the name of his father, former Republican congressman Lawrence Hogan, and Trump won less than 34 percent of the vote in Maryland. But Hogan did attend Trump’s inauguration.
Since then, Hogan has tried to avoid the topic of Trump as much as possible. It’s often difficult, but the governor earns some credit from Maryland Democrats for lacking the president’s provocativeness and antagonism. Last year, Hogan had three sit-down conversations — don’t call them debates — with state comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, and the two men earned plaudits for their respectful, friendly give-and-take. “I find Governor Hogan to be about as far removed from [Trump] 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,” Franchot told the Washington Post.
Nonetheless, Maryland Democrats will bring it all in an effort to unseat Hogan this autumn. One advantage for the governor is that nine Democrats are competing for the party’s nomination. A January poll found Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker leading the field with 24 percent, Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz at 14.2 percent, former NAACP president Ben Jealous at 13.8 percent, and everyone else in single digits. The polls are another positive indicator: One in January showed the governor with a 71 percent approval rating among likely voters and double-digit leads against all three top Democrats, and another in mid March showed him beating his top two opponents. The state’s Democratic machine has simply failed to tie Hogan to the abysmally unpopular Trump, at least so far.
Ehrlich knows pretty well what his longtime friend Hogan faces this fall; Ehrlich, too, was a plainspoken surprise Republican winner whose agenda was largely stymied by a heavily Democratic state legislature, and who ran for reelection as a Republican president’s approval rating sputtered.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about 2018,” Ehrlich says. “But I emphasize ‘cautiously,’ because it’s Maryland.”