Josh Kurtz: Hogan’s 70% Solution

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Say this for Gov. Larry Hogan (R): He finds a way to spin every single policy debate into political gold.

Hogan’s latest move, ordering public schools across the state to open after Labor Day and close by June 15, was done with his typical brute efficiency and simplicity.

This is a complex and textured issue, to say the least, but not for Hogan. He’s right, his critics are wrong, and in his view they should be prepared to suffer the political consequences.

Probably they will.

The edict will very possibly be overturned – perhaps by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), perhaps by the courts, perhaps by the Democratic-controlled legislature. Critics have marshaled many persuasive arguments against it.

But is anyone willing to bet that when it all shakes out, even if the policy is thrown out on the merits, Hogan won’t still come out looking like a winner? And just as important, that his critics will be portrayed as petty, narrow-minded partisans, despite the fact that Hogan is advancing vacation communities’ economic arguments over individual school districts’ educational (and in some cases, cultural) priorities in this highly diverse state?

That’s just the winning streak Hogan is on right now. He’s able not only to be seen as bold and decisive, when his agenda overall is actually pretty puny, but he gets to throw in a few artful digs at some of his nemeses – the “thugs” in the teachers union, as he recently called them, and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D), a possible challenger to Hogan in 2018, who is grappling with the crisis of scattered school closures due to lack of air conditioning.

Sure, school districts can appeal to the state Board of Education for a waiver if they can cite extraordinary hardship brought on by the new policy. But what is the likelihood that Hogan’s appointees to the school board – who include professional charter school advocates inherently at odds with the state educational establishment and teachers unions, and a Christian school principal – will have much sympathy?

Hogan has two PR playbooks, and they both work pretty well. He’s become the master of the small but politically significant gesture: Cutting toll prices in half (as if anyone wasn’t going to the beach because of them), launching a relatively inexpensive study on a new Chesapeake Bay crossing that won’t come to fruition until we’re close to the 22nd Century, things like that.

And then there is the punchy (mis)labeling of legislative initiatives he doesn’t like – i.e. the “Rain Tax,” and the more recent “Road to Nowhere” bill, as he’s calling legislation that creates priority scoring of state transportation projects. The latter has been accompanied by a campaign designed to scare local officials into thinking their priorities won’t be funded – and that the Democrats in the legislature are to blame.

No matter what, Hogan uses statistics to buttress his position: Not well-measured statistics that actually prove a point and advance his arguments, but poll results. Surely starting school after Labor Day is the right thing to do, he says, because 70 percent of voters support it, at least in the abstract.  

And how dare anyone ever oppose a man who’s polling at 70 percent, right? Nowadays with Hogan, the approval ratings, not the agenda items, are the message.

Somehow, Democrats have allowed Hogan, a wealthy real estate executive and son of a congressman, and his yes-man, Peter Franchot (D), the blue-blood state comptroller who has been flogging the school after Labor Day issue for years even though he is far more Cape Cod Creamery than Dumser’s Dairyland, to become the champions of disenchanted white blue-collar and middle-class voters. They have successfully labeled their foes elites, carpers, Democratic bosses and captives of the public employee unions.

Democrats’ efforts to fight back are no doubt hampered by the fact that one of their smartest strategists in the state, Len Foxwell, the mastermind behind Franchot and his various iterations for the past decade-plus, is now directly aiding Hogan with his frequent and vocal critiques of the Democratic establishment. Foxwell, an Eastern Shoreman who was the architect of Franchot’s “Let Summer Be Summer” campaign, has brought the rest of the state to heel on one of the Shore’s top priorities.

Foxwell still finds time during his busy day to use social media to argue with every high-profile critic of Franchot and Hogan – especially Baltimore Suneditorial writers and elected officials. It’s astonishing to witness. Imagine a chief of staff on Capitol Hill taking to Facebook every day to lob insults at one of his boss’ congressional colleagues; he’d be fired in a heartbeat.

Yet Franchot condones it, welcomes it, revels in it. Hogan, whose own brilliant and sometimes brutal use of social media has helped build and strengthen his political brand, no doubt applauds.

That’s just another measure of the contempt that Hogan has for his fellow elected officials who disagree with him. And another measure of Franchot’s increasing isolation from many of his fellow Democratic politicians.

People who follow Maryland politics, including me draw parallels between the Hogan-Franchot relationship and the relationship between then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) and then-Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), which Franchot used to such great effect in 2006 to end Schaefer’s storied political career. Some wonder whether history can repeat itself and if Franchot can be picked off in a 2018 Democratic primary.

Don’t count on it. Franchot had a very potent weapon in 2006 that no challenger will be able to come close to replicating: Len Foxwell.

(Disclosure: My wife is a public school teacher in Prince George’s County.) 

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.