Ask Republican Gov. Larry Hogan about his proudest accomplishment in the year since he was elected, and he’ll have trouble choosing one.
“That’s not a question I get a lot,” he said, laughing.
The governor was elected in a surprise victory Nov. 4, 2014, defeating then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown by 5 percentage points and capturing 20 of 23 counties in this state. Since then, he’s cut fees and spending throughout the government, attempting to stay true to his economic campaign message.
That’s not what he chooses as his proudest accomplishment, though.
“You know what? It’s that a majority now believe we’re headed in the right direction and that the state is on the right track,” Hogan said, calling from his desk in the State House in Annapolis. “We haven’t solved all the problems, but I’m most proud we’ve been able to turn things around as quickly as we have.”
A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll showed Hogan had a 61 percent approval rating in the state. In the same telephone poll, conducted from Oct. 8 through Oct. 11, 52 percent of residents said they believed the state was “going in the right direction.”
ELECTION NIGHT SURPRISE
A year ago, most expected Brown to win the election, in part because of the lack of polling close to election day. The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun’s most recently conducted polls had been between Oct. 2 and Oct. 8, 2014.
In the weeks after the election, the governor-elect declined to release his budget proposal, leaving many in the state nervous about where the funds would be apportioned, government and politics professor Stella Rouse said. On a bus tour of the state, Hogan avoided addressing any major policy questions.
His campaign platform focused on what Hogan called the “things people care about” — essentially, economic and job issues. Social issues, for the most part, weren’t addressed, and Hogan has said publicly he won’t try to change existing laws.
“He’s been very strategic in the issues he’s tackled and how he’s handled them,” Rouse said. “Cutting tolls and expenses statewide is popular across party lines. Not totally nixing the Purple Line project and keeping the program alive was a positive step. Other issues won’t necessarily be as easy, moving forward.”
Ninety days after his inauguration, Hogan was hit with an unexpected problem.
“Baltimore City was in flames,” he said.
The city erupted in protests in late April after the 25-year-old Freddie Gray died from injuries he suffered while in police custody. The protests later turned violent.
After preparing for days, Hogan said he “got the mayor to allow us to declare a state of emergency” and signed an executive order for deployment of the National Guard and local law enforcement, which brought about 4,000 people into the city.
There were no more injuries the rest of the week, Hogan said, and the people of Baltimore “thanked the state” for coming in to stop the violence.
The governor’s response was greeted with satisfaction — for the most part — across the state, Rouse said. Baltimore is typically self-contained in how it’s run, so the governor’s intervention could be “looked at in a number of ways,” she said.
“He made some public appearances, tried to stick by the leadership there without taking over,” Rouse said. “He was put in a situation very early on in his term, and he kind of did exactly what he was supposed to do.”
For government and politics professor Robert Koulish, however, the governor’s response to the Baltimore protests left something to be desired. Hogan was publicly critical of the mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, while she was on the front line, he said.
“Hogan appeared to me to be kind of bullying his way in, trying to get headlines,” Koulish said. “The mayor was quite busy during that time, and if he was going to be critical at that moment, it should have been behind the scenes. It left a bad taste in my mouth, minimizing what was going on.”
Five months into his administration, Hogan faced another roadblock. On June 22, he appeared before the state in a news conference and announced he’d received a “life-changing” diagnosis: advanced and aggressive non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
The diagnosis, he said, came the Friday before Father’s Day weekend. He told his wife that night and shared the news with the rest of his family before Monday, he said.
“I’ll be honest; my communications team was telling me not to do a press conference,” Hogan said, “but I’m a big believer in transparency and honesty. I wanted people to know exactly what I was going through.”
Despite the shocking news, he presented a strong face during the press conference, taking on the persona of a “happy warrior” and showing strength, Koulish said.
“My odds of getting through this and beating this are much, much better than the odds I had of beating Anthony Brown,” Hogan joked in the press conference.
Over the course of his treatment, Hogan said, he’s seen instances of “incredible strength and courage” from other patients, particularly children, that have inspired him to continue.
“One in three people in America are affected by cancer — maybe they have a family member, loved one or close friend affected by it,” Hogan said. “If I’m going to go through this battle, then I’m going to use it for some good: to bring awareness and visibility to the fight people are going through, too.
Hogan has raised money for the Ronald McDonald House, attended fundraisers and taken child cancer patients to Redskins, Ravens and Orioles games.
Moving forward, Koulish and Rouse said they predict the governor will have more challenges to face. Traditionally, “sophomore year” becomes more difficult for governors and mayors, Koulish said, adding Hogan might have trouble staying true to his economic message and keeping his distance from social issues.
“We’ll see next session what comes up,” Koulish said. “There’s going to be trafficking bills and probably plenty of opportunities for him to step in it going forward. You have to say he’s had a pretty positive first year — we’ll have to see what happens.”
A Sun report from Monday foreshadowed what Rouse expects to be a contentious issue in the coming months: what to do with the state’s budget surplus. This year, legislative leaders expect to take in $500 million more than budgeted and predict another $215 million surplus next year, according to the article.
Democrat leadership hopes the surplus will go toward school systems, but the governor has declined to elaborate on where the money will be spent, according to the article.
“A deficit is much easier to deal with than a surplus, as a Republican,” Rouse said. “When you have a bunch of money and pressure to spend that money … he doesn’t want to do that, he’ll inevitably upset some portion of constituents while trying to please another.”