Josh Kurtz: Probably the Only Time You’ll See Larry Hogan and JFK in the Same Headline

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By: Josh Kurtz 

On the night of the 50th anniversary of the murder of a martyred Democratic president, it feels strange, almost unpatriotic, or at least like some kind of karmic joke, to be hanging out at the Maryland Republican convention in Annapolis.

The airwaves have been thick for days with JFK nostalgia. But that is quickly forgotten when you turn onto the access road leading to the Annapolis hotel where the convention is taking place and there is an honest-to-goodness traffic jam, as if this event for the long-irrelevant state GOP has actual meaning.

“Larry has hijacked the convention,” one Republican says to another as they rush to the hotel from an auxiliary parking lot that’s considerably farther away than they ever imagined necessary.

“Larry sure knows how to throw a party,” any number of Republicans repeat with wonder during the course of the evening.

“Larry,” of course, is Larry Hogan, the Anne Arundel County businessman and former Ehrlich administration official who is now the GOP’s newest candidate for governor – though a formal announcement won’t be coming until after the holidays.

Ostensibly, this is a party to celebrate Change Maryland, the group Hogan started two and a half years ago as an alternative for the anti-O’Malley crowd to the terminally dysfunctional state Republican Party. Hogan, through Change Maryland, has quickly become the No. 1 irritant to the Democratic governor who would like to be president. Change Maryland boasts 65,000 members, including some Democrats and independents – though these are not dues-paying individuals but people who have “liked” the group’s Facebook page.

Hogan promised to reveal his plans for 2014 at the celebration Friday night, and no one can say for sure ahead of time which way he is going to go. As one incisive Republican tells me, “Larry wants to BE governor, he just doesn’t want to run for governor.”

So the crowd is huge, and there’s excitement in the air. Every faction of the state GOP is present, and then some: party regulars, Annapolis insiders, the Ehrlich crowd, the money people, the wing nuts, Democrats in name only like Marvin Mandel and George Owings. It’s a relatively diverse crowd, too, with an inordinate number of Korean businessmen (Hogan’s wife is Korean-American).

Hogan enters the ballroom to “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky.” He does his thing, with all the predictable bash O’Malley bromides and promises to take back the state.

“We cannot allow this arrogant and out-of-touch monopoly” – monopoly, a word frequently used by Bob Ehrlich himself to describe the Democrats – “to run this state into the ground,” Hogan says. “Up until tonight, they’ve just been expecting another coronation in November. But with your help, we’re going to give them the biggest fight of their lives.”

The crowd goes wild. Many Republicans say they can’t remember so much enthusiasm since 2002. Hogan, in a conversation immediately after his speech, says people shouldn’t be surprised by his decision to run. “We’ve been working this for two and a half years.”

Hogan won’t ramp up until January, but he’ll slowly start to put together a campaign team in the interim, at the same time he settles some business affairs and enjoys the holidays with his family. Asked about fundraising, when the three Democrats and three other Republicans already running for governor had such a head start, Hogan replies, “We’re not going to have a problem with that.” And asked whether he’s willing or able to self-fund, the real estate developer says, “We’re going to decide. We may have to.”

When the band Hogan hired for the event, called The Great Escape, returns to the stage following his speech, the first song they play is “I Will Survive” – an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the Maryland GOP.

Yet crazy as it sounds, the Republicans, with Hogan in the field, may now have a more interesting gubernatorial primary than the Democrats. And if his three GOP opponents are in any way chagrined by the splash Hogan is making with his late entry, they aren’t letting on.

“I think it helps us to have a primary,” says one of the candidates, Del. Ron George, in his hospitality suite shortly after Hogan’s speech. “Debate’s good.”

“It shows we have a strong farm team,” says Del. Jeannie Haddaway, the running mate to Harford County Executive David Craig, in Craig’s hospitality suite. (Craig and the fourth Republican candidate for governor, Charles Lollar, were spending Friday at the Republican Governors Association conference in Arizona, rather than at the state GOP confab.)

If nothing else, the Republicans can at least offer the voters three serious conservatives – Lollar’s campaign seems delusional at this early stage – with a record of public and community service who have thought a lot about governing and how to make the state better, whether you like their ideas or not. Even though Hogan comes with a healthy dose of ego and bluster, he is also capable of self-deprecation. He has been around the block a time or two and seems to know and understand the state better than, say, Ehrlich ever did.

And contrast Craig, George and Hogan – as human beings, at least, rather than as political packages – with the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler, and they acquit themselves pretty well. You can actually imagine them connecting with people as they attempt to make their case.

Brown and Gansler are all hubris and entitlement, their eyes firmly fixed on the next political prize. You know their primary is going to be ugly because they stand in each other’s path to glory (and the Democratic primary is still the one that matters).

Of course, all this musing seems trivial when you get back in your car Friday night and C-SPAN radio is playing the tapes of the phone conversations Lyndon Johnson had in the hours and days immediately following JFK’s assassination. Here, in one of the nation’s darkest moments, is a public servant so thoroughly in command of all the levers of government that it is awe-inspiring, even as the Kennedy crowd condescends to him, even as he can’t help masking his own doubts and fears.

Then you get home and Bob Ehrlich is a guest on Bill Maher’s show. Karma is playing a joke once again.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment and Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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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.