With fat white snowflakes falling on Annapolis, Gov. Larry Hogan stood on the steps of the State House and declared that things would be different in Maryland.
It was 2015, and Hogan had just been sworn into office, a rare Republican governor in a Democrat-dominated state. In his first speech as governor, Hogan promised to move Maryland’s government in a more bipartisan direction and to be friendlier to businesses and easier on the wallets of state residents.
“One hundred years from now, I want Marylanders to say: ‘This was when Maryland’s renaissance began,’” Hogan declared to thousands gathered below him on Lawyers Mall, bundled up against the cold.
Eight years later, Hogan is wrapping up his improbable two terms as Maryland governor with consistently high approval ratings and a firm belief that he really did — as his campaign slogan promised — “change Maryland for the better.”
Hogan recently spoke with The Baltimore Banner about his eight years as governor and what’s next for him. Hogan was in high spirits — as he often is in public — confident in his answers and in his assessment of his tenure as governor. Asked about that promise in his first inaugural speech to spark a renaissance, Hogan had no doubt he’d done just that.
“There’s no question about it from an economic standpoint. We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in history, and we were in the worst shape ever,” Hogan said. “So I would say Maryland’s renaissance did begin. The past eight years have been phenomenal.”
But critics say Hogan’s list of accomplishments is thin and and that he didn’t seem interested in the basics of the job. Budget surpluses, state workers’ unions argue, are partially due to understaffed state agencies.
Engineering an economic turnaround
Hogan, who is contemplating his political future and a potential run for president after his term ends on Jan. 18, defines his tenure through a shift in the economic prospects and general outlook of the state.
He hearkens back to the 2014 election, when he first won. Maryland was ending eight years under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, who had turned to tax increases to keep key programs going amid the Great Recession.
Hogan had effectively and publicly needled O’Malley — and his chosen successor, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown — for what he said were dozens of hikes in fees and taxes. Hogan painted a picture of Maryland as a state that businesses and retirees were fleeing.
“My entire campaign was about: Our economy is a mess. We’ve raised taxes too much. We’ve killed our businesses. Jobs and taxpayers and people are fleeing. And I’m going to turn it around,” Hogan said. “I’m going to grow businesses, I’m going to put more people to work and I’m going to take the deficit and turn it into a surplus. And we’re going to take our bad economy and turn it into a good one.”
By some economic measures, Hogan has succeeded. Per capita income has grown at nearly twice the rate it did during O’Malley’s administration, though O’Malley’s tenure included the Great Recession.
But state gross domestic product grew at a slower annual rate during Hogan’s administration than during O’Malley’s, according to federal data. And there are indications that parts of the economy continue to struggle, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Maryland’s unemployment rate was 4.3% in November, the most recent data available, tying the state for 43rd among all states. Utah had the lowest unemployment rate at 2.2%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The state now has generous surpluses totaling $5.5 billion from a combination of an influx of federal pandemic aid, a strong class of high wage-earners paying income taxes and the governor’s tightening of state spending.
Hogan went into his first budget after inheriting a $750 million predicted shortfall from O’Malley.
Now Hogan is in the position of warning the General Assembly and the incoming governor, Wes Moore, to be cautious with that surplus and not overspend.
Hogan also succeeded in whittling away some of the money that Marylanders pay to their government, from cutting tolls at highways and bridges early in his tenure to getting lawmakers to agree to a tax cut for retirees this past year.
Hogan estimates the savings at $4.7 billion overall. The largest chunk is $1.9 billion that retirees will save, followed by another $1.5 billion in payments made through a 2021 pandemic aid package. Other savings included a brief holiday from the gas tax in 2022 and various fees that were reduced.
“We are leaving the state in really good shape,” Hogan said.
Legislative wrangling and challenges
Hogan definitely does not count his successes in the number of bills passed that have his name on them, though he does have a few of those.
Facing an overwhelming number of Democrats in the General Assembly, Hogan made a strategic choice not to place his political fate in the hands of the legislature.
Hogan doesn’t mind that he has few legislative accomplishments to tout.
If he had wanted to pass new laws, he said, “I would have run for the legislature.”
“I never intended to enact a bunch of policies. I ran for governor saying I was going to try to stop a lot of bad things from happening, and I was going to turn our economy around.”
Hogan did wield a veto pen frequently, nixing Democratic bills — until lawmakers voted to overturn nearly all those vetoes.
Still, the governor thinks he had an effect on the bills that were passed in the end, because lawmakers had to pass legislation by a greater number of votes to ensure they were veto-proof.
“It’s the bluest state in America and in many ways, probably the most progressive state in America. And I’m a Republican,” Hogan said. “So we have natural disagreements on some issues. And occasionally, we had to stand up and fight for what we believed in and we didn’t always agree.”
Hogan has also taken heat for canceling the Red Line, a proposed east-west train line through Baltimore. The federal government had committed nearly $900 million toward planning and designing the project, but Hogan declared it to be a “boondoggle” and sent the money back.
Hogan instead focused the state’s transportation budget on repaving and improving highways and reworking the Baltimore region’s bus lines.
He hasn’t wavered in that decision: “Zero percent of people outside Baltimore wanted the Red Line,” Hogan said in a recent radio interview.
He’s also taken heat for his frequent criticism of Baltimore political leaders, including nearly every mayor during his term (there were four) and former State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.
Hogan often framed the persistent violence in the city as a problem to be solved through stricter policing and harsher punishments for criminals. He repeatedly tried — and failed — to get lawmakers to pass a bill that would require longer sentences for certain repeat offenders who used guns in crimes.
He seemed to have little patience for others who advocated working on the root causes of violence — lack of economic opportunity, poor transportation, insufficient education — as a means to prevent shootings and murders.
“We gave tremendous assistance to local police and we put record funding into local police but we still kept having the same repeat violent offenders committing the same crimes on the streets,” Hogan said.
Hogan also had some missteps.
Early in the pandemic, after boasting about buying coronavirus test kits from a South Korean company, it turned out that the tests could not be used. The state had to pay $2.5 million extra, on top of the $9 million already paid, in order to get a second batch of tests that did work.
The governor maintains that the deal with the test company, LabGenomics, was “a great accomplishment.”
Independent auditors, however, found that the Hogan administration hastily bought the tests before they had FDA approval to be used. And the administration skirted procurement rules, never signing a proper legal contract with LabGenomics.
Hogan told The Baltimore Banner that “most of the criticism is a bunch of nonsense,” and that because he got flak both from Democrats in Maryland and then-President Donald Trump, a Republican, then that’s proof he must have been right.
“It was a tremendous accomplishment, and we’ve been criticized for years,” he said. “I don’t really care.”
Hogan also weathered the very public downfall in 2020 of his then-chief of staff, Roy McGrath, who was found to have negotiated himself a sweetheart payout from the Maryland Environmental Service when he left that state agency to become chief of staff.
McGrath resigned under pressure after just 11 weeks in the job and now is awaiting criminal trials in both state and federal courts for, among other things, allegedly misleading officials about the severance and illegally recording meetings with the governor and others.
Hogan has maintained that he knew no details of McGrath’s severance negotiations and is expected to be a witness for the prosecution in court.
Hogan also had touted the value of public-private partnerships, when the government works hand-in-hand with for-profit companies, but his initiatives on that front faltered. The governor’s plans for widening key highways in the D.C. suburbs with toll lanes built and managed by private companies were scaled back and eventually put off for the next governor to decide.
And another public-private partnership that he inherited, the Purple Line Metro expansion, has been beset with legal and other problems, increasing costs and falling far behind schedule.
Hogan’s tenure is perhaps best defined, however, by the crises he weathered during eight years, both politically and personally.
Just a few months into his first term, Hogan watched as unrest enveloped some Baltimore neighborhoods following the death of Freddie Gray, a young man who had died from injuries he suffered while in police custody. Hogan sent Maryland National Guard soldiers and state troopers to help patrol the city, which he describes in interviews and in his memoir, “Still Standing,” as a decisive act of leadership necessary to restore peace.
Not long after that, Hogan revealed he had cancer and publicly went through treatment, losing his hair, gaining weight and battling fatigue. Eventually, he was declared cancer-free.
Then there was the matter of the coronavirus pandemic, when Hogan simultaneously ran the state’s response to the virus and coordinated other governors as they battled the federal government to get needed tests, supplies and information. Hogan, at the time, was president of the National Governors Association. Instead of focusing his presidency of the group on infrastructure projects, as he planned, Hogan had to pivot to a health crisis response.
“We were trying to keep 6 million [Maryland residents] alive and keep businesses alive,” Hogan said. “There was very little sleep.”
During the stressful early months of the pandemic, Hogan was often at odds with then-President Donald Trump, who he had never supported. Hogan was often seen on national TV shows calling out the president’s missteps, which earned him criticism from the right and praise from the left.
The pandemic response is an area where Hogan gets nearly across-the-board plaudits for recognizing the threat early, communicating information clearly and taking actions to limit the spread. Some feel that Hogan was too strict with the state’s restrictions — he was sued unsuccessfully — while others feel he didn’t protect Marylanders enough or left it to the counties to make decisions better handled by the state.
But in the fall of 2020 — after the virus had been here for months but before vaccines were available — a Goucher College poll found 82% approval of Hogan’s pandemic response.
And the pandemic was a time when Hogan and Democratic leaders found common ground. In 2021, for example, Hogan, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson collaborated on a bill called the RELIEF Act that sent more aid to low-income Marylanders and small businesses.
“In the midst of COVID, we had a very strong working relationship,” Ferguson said. “I think, for the most part, he was focused on public health in a way that I thought put people’s health and safety front and center.”
Everything that was thrown at Hogan ended up as a success, and that’s not something every politician can pull off, said Doug Mayer, a Republican strategist who worked for Hogan both in the State House and on his reelection campaign.
“If you look over the course of eight years, a lot of things happened: the riots, cancer, the Trump presidency and COVID. Those were four big crises that happened,” Mayer said. “Any one of those handled incorrectly or without a lot of deft would end a governorship.”
In those moments of crisis, when decisions had to be made, Hogan was sure to listen to experts, evaluate different courses of action, and then he was decisive in declaring a course of action, supporters say.
“He’s the kind of guy you want in that situation because he’s clear-eyed and has questions. He doesn’t want to be the smartest guy in the room, but he wants to pull in the smart people,” said Ron Gunzburger, a senior advisor to the governor for all eight years.
Approval from the people
With ups and downs over eight years, one thing has remained constant in Hogan’s world: sky-high approval ratings.
Poll after poll showed his approval rating north of 60%, occasionally reaching above 70%.
This past fall, Hogan had a 62% approval rating in a poll conducted by Goucher College in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR. His approval rating was higher among Democrats (64%) than among Republicans (58%).
You don’t get those kind of approval ratings and a commanding reelection victory by accident, Hogan’s advisors say.
“He really dominated, and he did so by reflecting values that I think the vast majority of Marylanders can and do associate with. That people really see him as someone who is like him,” said Matthew A. Clark, a former communications director and chief of staff. “Most folks in the state aren’t partisans. I think in Governor Hogan, they found somebody who had an outlook very much like theirs.”
Del. Jason Buckel, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates, said Hogan remained popular by avoiding political extremes and avoiding too many political fights.
Buckel put his analysis in football terms: “Governor Hogan didn’t throw a lot of touchdowns, but he also didn’t throw a lot of interceptions.”
Hogan avoided issues embraced by some Republicans that would have been unpopular in Maryland, such as loosening gun control laws or infringing on the rights of people in the LGBTQ community. Until this past year, he avoided dealing with abortion, and then he opted not to spend money that lawmakers had set aside to train medical providers in abortion care.
And he supported some proposals other Republicans may have avoided: outlawing bump stocks that can make certain guns deadlier, banning fracking for natural gas, and banning therapy meant to convert young people to heterosexuality. Hogan also supported the removal of a statue of Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney — who said Black Americans could not become citizens and authored the Dred Scott decision that upheld slavery — from the grounds of the State House.
“He never has been moved by the forces on the far right,” said Goucher College pollster and author Mileah Kromer. “When he looks at the Maryland electorate, he looks at it very much from where the majority of voters are, and that’s where he tries to govern to.”
Hogan frequently cites his approval ratings as proof that he’s been successful in making the right decisions for Marylanders. He said he hopes that after he leaves office, people will continue to reflect positively on his work.
“I would just be happy with them saying, ‘You know, that guy Hogan was a pretty good governor.’ … I want them to say, ‘He was normal. He did what he said and there was no B.S. about that guy,’” Hogan said.
“And,” he added, “That the state was in better shape when he left than when he got there.”
‘It was just posturing’
For all of Hogan’s popularity, some critics say he has little to show for his eight years in office.
Hogan didn’t advance any significant policies in Maryland and left the state workforce understaffed and underfunded, said Patrick Moran, head of the largest union for state government workers and who frequently sparred with Hogan.
“When the debrief on Hogan is finally done, it’s going to be noted that he was governing by press conference and by hype,” Moran said. “And ‘governing’ is a very generous word in this instance. There was really no interest in governing. It was just posturing.”
Moran, who leads tens of thousands of state workers in the AFSCME Maryland Council 3, said Hogan’s lack of interest — and lack of funding — in state agencies has left offices, hospitals and jails “in shambles.” The next governor is going to have a big challenge in recruiting workers and improving the level of government services, he said.
Past governors have courted public displeasure by advancing causes that some disagree with, whether it was supporting same-sex marriages or legalizing gambling. Hogan rarely pursued any controversial policies, Moran said.
Moran suggested that if most Marylanders were asked to name an accomplishment from Hogan, they’d only be able to say that he lowered tolls on bridges and tunnels.
“It’s easy to get a high approval rating when you don’t do anything,” he said.
State lawmakers found themselves repeatedly frustrated with the governor’s lack of engagement, said Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the majority leader in the House of Delegates.
Hogan himself never appeared before a General Assembly committee to promote his legislation and his cabinet secretaries often filed “informational” testimony on proposed bills rather than taking a position for or against.
Hogan rarely offered his views on policy issues being debated (”The governor will review any legislation that reaches his desk” was a common statement from his office) and sometimes surprised his allies when he did: In 2017, as Republican lawmakers were fighting against a ban on fracking for natural gas in Western Maryland, Hogan suddenly announced his support.
Another time, Hogan showed outward disdain for legislators in a radio interview when he compared them to rowdy college students on spring break.
“It’s like they’re on spring break,” Hogan said on WBAL Radio in 2016, in the midst of a legislative session. “They come here for a few weeks. They start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony.” Once the lawmakers went home, Hogan said, he’d be able to “go back to running the state and making progress.”
Korman said the “spring break” interview was evidence that Hogan’s dislike for legislators and the legislative process is not partisan.
“I don’t think he was a very engaged and involved governor and he revels in that,” Korman said. “He decided early on that he wasn’t interested in the governing part of being governor. He was interested in the popularity.”
Looking to the future
Hogan has persistently avoided giving a firm answer on what’s next for him, but he’s following the early path of eventual presidential contenders.
He was wooed to challenge Trump in 2020, but turned down his suitors. Whether the seed was planted then, or whether it was already there, it’s grown into a tangible opportunity for 2024.
Hogan hasn’t yet said yes to a presidential run, but he certainly isn’t saying no.
He has a political advocacy committee, An America United, that’s been sponsoring his travels and producing hype videos. And he also has a federal political action committee that’s sprinkled money around to other Republican candidates — a potential goodwill offering that could reap benefits down the line.
Hogan spent a good chunk of 2022 on the road, stumping for Republican candidates, eating fried food at the Iowa State Fair — essentially a requirement to run for president — and pitching his message of a less divisive national political discourse. He visited early-primary state New Hampshire three times.
(And Hogan’s travels cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to fly his security detail around with him.)
At a fundraiser in late November, Hogan stood on a stage with columns of red, white and blue balloons and told the crowd that he planned to “sit down and talk to my family and talk to my friends and determine how I can best serve our great nation.”
Part of Hogan’s calculations will be whether there’s a place for him in the national Republican party. Are Republican presidential primary voters still enthralled with Trump? Or would they support an avowed anti-Trump candidate like Hogan?
Hogan gave a hint of how much he’s been evaluating with odds, speaking with reporters after an event in Towson last month and dropping a fact about presidential primaries: “Fourteen of the first 18 pre-Super Tuesday states are open primaries that independents and/or Democrats could vote in the Republican primary.” He rattled off how many Democrats voted in New Hampshire’s Republican primary and how many independents voted in Massachusetts’ Republican primary.
For a Republican who built both of his victories in Maryland by appealing to independents and persuadable Democrats, as well as Republicans, it sounded a bit like the start of a national campaign strategy.
So far, Hogan barely registers in polls of potential Republican candidates for 2024. But he believes there might be a path for him, especially if Trump and Trump-like candidates crowd the field.
“There could be a bunch of people fishing in the same pond, dividing it up,” Hogan said in New Hampshire this fall. “And maybe there’s that same 20 to 30 percent right now that want to go in a completely different direction.
“So we’ll see.”