Josh Kurtz: The 74 Percent Solution

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Thank you, Gov. Hogan.

He wants thanks for keeping the peace after last year's Baltimore riots? There, we’ve just said it.

Thank you also, Governor, for reminding us how petty and thin-skinned you can be. Thank you for showing what high regard you have for yourself and what little regard you have for the concept of separation of powers.

Thank you for revealing that you view tackling urban problems as an annoyance, rather than a responsibility and an opportunity. Thank you for continuing to use last year’s Baltimore riots as a dog whistle to those of your supporters who have a healthy fear and loathing of the majority-black city.

And thank you for interpreting high poll numbers as license to do what you want -- and to delegitimize legitimate dissent.

At a time when the Maryland political community was understandably focused on last week's primary results and associated fallout, as Democrats fretted about whether their broad but fragile coalition had been torn asunder, Hogan provided a needed reality check.

Yes, the conversation about the future of the Democratic Party, and whether veteran party leaders and officeholders are truly committed to inclusion, is worth having. And sure, there’s plenty of post-primary scorekeeping to keep political junkies' hearts racing.

But Hogan's speech last week before a free-market Washington, D.C., think tank called the American Action Forum may have said more about the state of Maryland politics than all the primary results combined.

The Baltimore Sun wrote a short article about Hogan’s peevish comments that he “never got a thank you” from Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) for his actions during the unrest in the city a year ago, and several other media outlets followed suit. But there was so much more in Hogan’s 50-minute appearance to chew on.

Hogan was introduced by Fred Malek, the 79-year-old Republican powerbroker, donor and corporate chieftain whose national influence extends back to the Nixon administration. Malek joked that when he heard about Hogan’s agenda and deeds, he thought people were talking about the governor of Mississippi  – not the governor of a blue state like Maryland.

Hogan then launched into his standard stump speech, blaming all of the state’s ills on his Democratic predecessor, Martin O’Malley. If national Republicans can still campaign against Jimmy Carter 35 years after he left office, what is the statute of limitations on O’Malley?

Hogan then boasted about cutting taxes and eliminating “100 job-killing regulations.” He pointed out that he put the slogan “Open for Business” on “Welcome to Maryland” signs. “I think they used to say, ‘what’s in your wallet?’” he joked.

Hogan cited statistics showing favorable economic trends and a reversal in voters’ opinions on the direction of the state. And, he noted, “People with real-world experience are actually running our state agencies,” skipping over the fact that eight of his cabinet secretaries are former state legislators, while others are seasoned government bureaucrats.

Mostly, Hogan seemed overly enamored with and emboldened by his poll numbers.

To be sure, there were elements of Likeable Larry on display, like when he preached bipartisanship, or when he said, “We’ve been continuing to try to surprise people…We haven’t screwed up too badly yet,” or when he good-naturedly scolded the audience for not applauding sufficiently when he mentioned that he’s now cancer-free.

It was during the question-and-answer period that Hogan’s less appealing side came through. It also became quickly apparent that his definition of bipartisanship is bipartisanship on his terms.

Asked first whether there was a chance that the GOP’s newly-minted U.S. Senate nominee, Del. Kathy Szeliga, might pull the kind of upset he did in 2014, Hogan said Republicans have “a really great Senate candidate,” without mentioning her name or saying another word about her. He conceded that he’s really focused on 2018, when he expects his high standing with the voters will have “an impact” at the polls.

Expressing annoyance that Democratic legislators would oppose him when his approval rating is at “74 percent,” Hogan said, “I’ve got a feeling we’re going to have to change their opinions – or we’re going to have to change the members of the legislature.”

Next came a question about D.C. voting rights, and whether Hogan might embrace the idea of absorbing the city of Washington into Maryland. Hogan replied, “You know what, we’ve got enough problems dealing with the city of Baltimore. I’m not sure we want to deal with the problems of Washington, D.C., as well.”

 No doubt, D.C. still has way too many pockets of misery. But its economic growth in the past half-dozen years or so is the envy of many big cities, a fact Hogan ignored. Of course, three-quarters of the voters there are registered Democrats.

Soon after came a question about Baltimore, and Hogan used it as an opportunity to recount his conversations with Rawlings-Blake a year ago as tensions in the city were rising following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody – and to denigrate her.

“We came in and saved the city,” he said. “Never got a thank you. All she did was criticize us from that day until this day, said we’ve done nothing to help Baltimore city. It’s very unfortunate. We have a new mayor coming in. Her career’s now over. She’s a lame duck. She has a few months to serve out her term but her career in Baltimore is done.”

 Hogan also accused the Democrats, from President Obama on down, of politicizing the crisis as it was taking place.

“I think there was a lot of political stuff going on at the city level,” he said. “They were talking to the White House. They were talking to the [Democratic National Committee], they were getting political advice about how to handle the situation. I couldn’t care less about any of that. I just wanted to act and get things done and save the city. I didn’t care politically how it looked. I got a call from the president on the way to the burning city, to caution me to exercise restraint. It’s the only contact we had with him.”

Hogan accused Democrats of killing his proposal for a manufacturing tax credit, which he said would have helped the city, because “we were having too many successes and they didn’t want to give us a political victory.” He talked at great length about Democratic lawmakers opposing his agenda – and the political repercussions they will face – noting that only 18 percent of poll respondents disapprove of his performance.

“A legislator in a district that’s potentially competitive shouldn’t vote with the 18 percent most of the time,” he said. “…There were a couple of issues that these people went off the rails on and voted against the wishes of 80 or 90 percent of the people in the state.”

Hogan talked about the difficulty of “changing the hearts and minds of representatives” who are dedicated to maintaining the status quo, and insisted he spends “a lot of time” meeting with lawmakers – a statement even most Republicans in Annapolis would privately find funny.

So there you have it.

As last week’s primary results reminded us, the Democratic Party in Maryland is deeply flawed – and frequently divided. The partly badly needs to improve its message and promote new messengers.

But if Donna Edwards’ powerful primary night scolding was a wake-up call to Democrats, then Hogan’s speech last week ought to be an emergency warning signal blasting through every corner of the state. Whether they have the ability to adequately respond is very much an open question.


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.