Josh Kurtz: Hogan 2, Democrats 0

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A few years back I was interviewing a New Mexico political wise guy for an article about what Bill Richardson, the former governor and cabinet secretary, had been doing since he left office. The analyst sought to compare Richardson, a Democrat, with his successor, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“The elevator with Richardson went up to the 50th floor, and when he got off and Martinez got on it went back down to about three,” the wise guy told me.

I’ve been recalling that observation as I think about Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and his predecessor, Democrat Martin O’Malley.

O’Malley in eight years presided as Maryland legalized same-sex marriage, outlawed capital punishment, expanded gun control and immigrants’ rights, held the line on college tuition, boosted transportation and infrastructure spending, and adopted cutting-edge clean energy standards, among other initiatives.

Hogan, in his time in office, has accomplished far less.

And yet, Hogan is emerging from his second General Assembly session, which ended at midnight Monday, with another clear victory. It’s time to wonder whether Democrats are ever going to be able to lay a glove on him.

Democrats in the General Assembly shredded a good bit of Hogan’s modest legislative agenda. This annoys the governor, who seems peevish most of the time with the legislature’s mere existence.

But in the end, for Hogan and his allies, it hardly matters, because Hogan has held the line on taxes and fees – and managed to cut a few – for the second straight session. Hogan is pretty convinced that if he can continue to say this in two years, his reelection is all but guaranteed. He may be right.

It’s not that Democrats don’t have legitimate accomplishments to boast about this session. But few are sexy beyond the borders of State Circle or to anyone who doesn’t pay close attention to legislation. And the Democrats never seemed to be very strategic about offering alternatives to Hogan’s platitudes about small government and fiscal responsibility.

It’s almost as if the voters – even many Democrats – are still exhausted after O’Malley’s eight years of activism, and all the special rights and funding extended for the dispossessed and downtrodden, even if they deserved them. Hogan knows it – and is going to exploit that sentiment for as long as he can.

Still buy in to the long-held conventional wisdom that Maryland is basically a progressive state?

The legislature did pass some progressive legislation – and some commonsense bills – this session.

The measure to provide retirement security to private sector workers is an important piece of legislation – which had its genesis back when O’Malley was still governor. It was first proposed by state Sen. Jim Rosapepe (D) and then-Del. Tom Hucker (D), and has been carried in the House by Del. Bill Frick (D) since Hucker left the legislature.

In 2013, O’Malley appointed former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) to head a commission on retirement security, and its recommendations were expected to become part of Gov. Anthony Brown’s first-year agenda. Except, of course, there never was a Brown administration.

This year, Rosapepe found as a legislative partner state Sen. Andrew Serafini (R), a financial planner by trade, and they hammered out the final details of the legislation. It passed unanimously in the Senate, though 45 Republicans opposed it in the House.

Among the other significant legislation passed this session: a bill increasing the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; a bill to boost clean energy jobs in the state; a bill that strengthens the partnership between the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore; a bill that calls for more transparency in the administration’s transportation and infrastructure funding decisions, and a package that increases funding for Baltimore city in the wake of the Freddie Gray riots.

And let’s not forget the legislature’s early override of Hogan’s veto of the bill restoring voting rights to thousands of convicted felons.

But Hogan can and will share in the credit for the Baltimore investment bill. Greenhouse gas emissions standards are pretty remote and ephemeral for the average voter. Same with the tweak in the university relationship – which many advocates and lawmakers had hoped would be a full-on merger. The retirement security bill received shockingly little public attention – another reminder of how thin media coverage of Annapolis is generally.

And when it came to the disputes between Hogan and legislative Democrats, whether the Democrats were in the right – voting rights, transportation transparency – or in the wrong (by resisting Hogan’s politically motivated redistricting reform measure), Hogan seemed to get the better of them. He took full advantage of his bully pulpit and used social media to fire up his partisans. And the Democrats, despite their seasoned and wily legislative leadership, seemed rudderless.

The Democrats need to get their act together. The 2018 election is a lot closer than they think.

Twelve years ago, when Republican Bob Ehrlich was in his second year as governor, the Democrats already had two high-profile candidates mobilizing to defeat him in 2006: O’Malley, who was then Baltimore mayor, and Doug Duncan, who was then the Montgomery County executive. Both were in the news all the time, and on the frontlines making policy.

Sometimes they were at odds with Ehrlich, other times not. But there was never any doubt about what they were doing – and their every move and pronouncement was watched closely.

At this point, we still don’t know exactly who the Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 are going to be. Only Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) is raising money in a serious way. None of the putative candidates is dedicating every weekend to the rubber chicken circuit or reaching out to party activists in a serious way, the way countless wannabe statewide candidates were doing at this stage of the 2006 cycle.

Looking ahead to the 2017 General Assembly session, Democrats have at least two opportunities to make Hogan squirm: By passing a family leave bill and by following the lead of New York and California and passing legislation to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. Hogan, as the self-appointed sole protector of Maryland’s business climate, may well come out against them – but these are high-profile issues that will generate lots of headlines and heat.

Yet family leave advocates inside and outside the legislature couldn’t even get a bill out of the state Senate this year. And can progressive Democrats put a coalition together to pass a $15 minimum wage?

Then consider this: While 54 Republicans voted against the family leave bill when it passed the House last week, the rhetoric – during floor debate and in its aftermath – wasn’t nearly as vitriolic as expected. It raises the question of whether Hogan himself – who after all, is the walking example of an employee who needed sick leave last year due to a catastrophic illness – might be pondering ways to advance family leave legislation of his own, even if it is a watered-down version.

If that happens, then my column a year from now will surely carry the headline, “Hogan 3, Democrats 0.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. 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.