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December 16th, 2017

Insight

Astonishingly Popular: How to succeed as a Republican governor in a Democratic state

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published Jan. 5, 2016

Larry Hogan (R) with friend and political ally, Chris Christie.

Annapolis

As rioting broke out in Baltimore last April, Maryland governor Larry Hogan got a call from Chris Christie, his friend, political ally, and governor of New Jersey. How you handle the crisis, Christie told Hogan, “is going to be the defining moment for you" as governor.

The situation was dicey and Hogan's task—preventing the riot from spreading—was delicate. He was a Republican official in a Democratic state, a white politician dealing with a predominantly black city, a governor ready to send in the National Guard who had to negotiate with a black mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She appeared more fearful of an overreaction than of the riot itself.

Two days before lawlessness broke out, Hogan had sensed the city might explode over the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. He opened an emergency operations center and put the National Guard on high alert. He drafted two executive orders, one deploying the soldiers at the mayor's request, the other on his authority alone. The mayor's role wasn't required by statute, but politics made it advantageous.

Hogan, 59, was ready to act once violence erupted. Police were being ambushed, buildings torched. "The city was in complete anarchy," he says. Yet Hogan couldn't reach the mayor for two-and-a-half hours. Neither could his aide, assigned to keep the two of them in constant communication.

When Hogan finally got through to her, Rawlings-Blake said she needed 15 minutes to talk to the police commissioner. With several minutes to spare, she got back in touch. She was reluctant for the National Guard to come into the city.

Hogan paraphrased her response this way: "Since you have a gun to my head and will do it anyway, I guess I'll ask you to come in." Troops and police, already mobilized in an armory, were ordered to intervene. Within hours, the riot was contained. Approximately 130 police had been injured, 300 businesses damaged, but it was not a repeat of the devastating riot of 1968.

The governor had prevailed. He "didn't want to trample over local government," he tells me. Indeed, he had been deferential to the mayor, up to a point. He recognized the sensitivity of their relationship and the need to be respectful. But he wasn't going to let rioting and destruction engulf the city.

Christie, who had dispatched 150 New Jersey state police in full riot gear to help out in Baltimore, turned out to be right. It was the defining moment for Hogan. He handled the situation—riot, mayor, armed forces—deftly. And he did so in the manner that mirrored the way in which he operated first as candidate, now as governor.

To succeed in a state as deeply Democratic as Maryland, a Republican governor is forced to limit his agenda and style. Hogan has focused on his executive power and on popular issues. He's slashed tolls on highways and bridges, refunded overcharges in income tax payments, closed the scandal-plagued Baltimore jail, and killed a new line for the city's failing rail transit system with a tunnel projected to cost $1 billion.

Hogan did get the legislature to lift the mandate requiring counties to tax storm-water runoff—the so-called rain tax. But he hasn't pushed strictly Republican proposals. "He's governor of Maryland," an adviser says. "He's not Don Quixote."

He says he must also be a goalie. "We're able to stop bad things from happening," he says. For the first time in years, taxes haven't been raised, nor has spending jumped. He postponed $68 million in spending on schools in higher-income areas.

His biggest effort is encapsulated in the new slogan "Maryland: Open for Business." Hogan says the "culture of state government was unfriendly." Businesses were treated as "guilty until proven innocent." Changing that is a work in progress, he says. "It's still not where we'd like it to be."

The economy has picked up in Hogan's first year as governor. (It's the first elected office he's held.) From January through November last year, the state gained 60,000 jobs. And Maryland's mood has flipped. A Democratic poll found in October that 56 percent believe Maryland is headed in the right direction. Fourteen months ago, only 37 percent did. Surveys by the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun found the same thing.

Hogan's own poll numbers are just as impressive. His approval rating was 63 percent in a Sun poll in November, two points higher than Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski's. A month earlier, the Post found his approval had jumped to 61 percent from 42 percent in February 2015. His popularity "extends across partisan demo-graphic lines in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans more than 2 to 1," the Post said.

That's not all. Hogan is the third most-popular governor in the country, according to a national poll conducted over several months last year by Morning Consult. His approval was 69 percent. Only Republicans Charles Baker in Massachusetts (74) and Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota (70) topped Hogan.

Part of Hogan's gift for governing a Democratic state is his optimism and cheerfulness, which were unwavering even after he was diagnosed in June with cancer and lost his hair and eyebrows to chemotherapy. He gained 25 pounds. He announced in November that he is "100 percent cancer-free." His bout with cancer gave a new dimension to his public life.

"I never expected to be in this position," he said at a press conference. "But having gone through this experience myself just opened up a whole new world. I'm part of the club. I'm one of them. .??.??. They know when they see me, [they can say], 'He knows what chemo is like.'?" Hogan says he's discovered a "real camaraderie" with other cancer patients.

Hogan is not given to hopelessness. He was an underdog in his race for governor in 2014. His campaign stressed economic issues—taxes, jobs, growth, state spending—to the exclusion of all others. "We focused on the things everybody agreed on," he says. "People were leaving the state in droves," especially to Virginia and Delaware. In a Gallup poll in 2014, 47 percent said they would leave Maryland if they could.

The media paid Hogan little attention, expecting Democrat Anthony Brown, the lieutenant governor, to win easily. Brown outspent Hogan 5-1. But the Republican Governors Association funded a $1.5 million ad buy in the closing days that was crucial.

The ad was simple, tying Brown to Governor Martin O'Malley and his rash of tax and fee hikes. They "gave us an electricity rate increase, a transit fare increase, another tax on gasoline, higher income tax rates, a tax on mortgages, a rain tax, a flush tax, higher costs for health care, for being born, for dying, trips, slips, fishing, flip flops, tube socks, purses, roller skates, license plates, PJs, diapers, wipers, caps, hats, and bookbags—all courtesy of Gov. O'Malley and Anthony Brown."

In 2016, Hogan is looking to Virginia to help erase the legacy of O'Malley. "With [Democratic governor Terry] McAuliffe over there, we're trying to bring a few jobs back," he says. Chances are, he'll succeed.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.

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