Josh Kurtz: A Tale of Two Hogans

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By Josh Kurtz

If we’ve learned one thing about Gov. Larry Hogan (R) during his first 83 days in office, it’s that he’s a man of contradictions.

At one moment, he’s the great conciliator, nodding to the realities of divided government – reaching out to Democratic leaders, preaching bipartisanship, and expressing satisfaction with the gradual progress he’s made in achieving his goals.

At the next moment, he’s the impatient partisan, boasting again (and again) about his mandate to change Annapolis, and attempting to bully Democrats in the General Assembly to get his way.

Will the real Larry Hogan please stand up? Probably, they both have.

It’s worth noting that the apparent divisions within the man himself are reflected by the advisers he’s chosen to surround himself with, and in the outside forces egging him on.

In one corner are the pragmatists and Annapolis veterans, the Republicans and conservative Democrats who are not allergic to compromise, who know how hard it is to bring change and are quietly content to measure their progress in inches.

In the other corner are the red meat Republicans and GOPers with a national political pedigree, who have worked for the likes of Karl Rove and Nikki Haley and Chris Christie. They wouldn’t pee on a Democrat if she were on fire.

Hogan’s upset victory last November was in some ways every bit as important as a national Republican political talking point as it was for its practical impact at home. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that even when Hogan is making nice to Democrats, his political operation is taking another approach, with one more victory lap, one more questionable boast, one more poke at Democratic-aligned interest groups.

There were two watershed moments during this General Assembly session, which ended with the usual flurry of activity late Monday night.

The first was during Hogan’s State of the State address, when he undid a lot of the partisan good will he had spent weeks building up, with a campaign-style speech that began with a long diagnosis of what he believes is wrong with Maryland.

The second came last week, when Hogan, after hailing bipartisan votes for the budget several days earlier, demanded that his agenda be adopted in full, and submitted a third supplemental budget that enraged legislative leaders, especially in the House.

Hogan up until that point had become expert at taking half a loaf and declaring it a sumptuous feast. State House insiders, contrasting his performance with that of his friend and Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, were comparing the new governor, only half-jokingly, to LBJ, citing his ability to give just about everybody a little something of what they wanted.

So last week’s abrupt, angry turnaround – even though it was followed over the weekend by more conciliatory words and gestures from the governor – was jarring, to say the least, when the prudent thing would have been to declare victory and get the hell out.

Some observers saw incompetence, others saw rookie mistakes, and still others saw a governor being ill served by the two factions within his administration. An April 7 Washington Post article about the budget showdown was telling: Even Republican legislators could not articulate what Hogan was up to, and some participants in a closed-door meeting on the impasse slyly suggested the governor didn’t know what he was talking about.

But if the goal of Hogan and his team is to keep Democrats off balance, they have largely succeeded.

The Democrats, so used to getting their way in Annapolis for so long, have themselves shown many contradictions during the past 90 days.

In the House, leaders – especially Speaker Mike Busch (D) and Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh (D) – have been steadfast in their opposition to most of Hogan’s program, unapologetically reminding the world about their statutory authority to craft the budget the way they see fit, and then skillfully securing its passage with only a dozen dissenting Republican votes.

On the Senate side, where the budget passed unanimously, President Mike Miller (D) has been fascinating to watch, as he so often is.

After the State of the State speech, Miller was about as angry as anyone has ever seen him, thundering about the tone and substance of Hogan’s address. On the other hand, he has, for most of the session, looked for ways to pass provisions of Hogan’s agenda, thus enabling the governor to save face. Miller has offered compromises on charter schools, the so-called rain tax, and several other issues.

Miller is all too aware that but for different or better-funded Republican candidates last fall, he could be leading a caucus and a chamber without Democratic Sens. John Astle, Jim Brochin, Ed DeGrange, Kathy Klausmeier, Jim Mathias and Ron Young – and that their seats will be prime GOP targets in 2018, especially if Hillary Clinton is sitting in the White House. Hogan won each of their districts decisively, and will be favored to do so again.

Still, symbolically, top Democrats in both chambers began the long final day of the session yesterday figuratively linking arms, suggesting that Hogan has, uniquely, found a way to unify them.

Larry Hogan was elected governor by appealing to independents and disaffected Democrats. His affable personality helped enormously. But if he’s going to resort to partisan tantrums, he may be offering Democrats a great big opening that they may have hoped for, but certainly didn’t anticipate.

Now that the circus is leaving town, Hogan will have the spotlight mostly to himself. It will be fascinating to see how he comports himself in this next important phase of his first year as governor.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.