For a dozen years, Kelly Schulz has been a political partner with Gov. Larry Hogan. Now she’s hoping some of his political success rubs off.
Schulz, a former state secretary of labor and commerce under Hogan, is endorsed by the popular outgoing governor as she tries to become the third Republican elected governor of Maryland in the past 20 years.
“We know that there’s still work to do, and I feel a sense of responsibility to be able to make sure what we have been able to do over the course of the past seven years doesn’t go backwards,” Schulz said.
Schulz, 53, is one of four Republicans vying for their party’s nomination for governor in this summer’s primary election, alongside 10 Democrats. All are hoping to succeed Hogan, who is term-limited.
Maryland’s politics are dominated by Democrats, who strongly outnumber Republican and independent voters and control the state legislature.
But Republicans have had a successful streak at the top of state government, managing to hold control of the governor’s mansion for 12 of the last 20 years — the last eight under Hogan and four years under Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who was elected in 2002. Hogan is popular with voters in both parties — 64% of Maryland Democrats approve or strongly approve of him, while 67% of Republicans approve or strongly approve, according to a June Goucher College Poll conducted in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR.
Schulz needs to mimic Hogan’s crossover appeal to keep the GOP’s winning streak going.
But she has work to do: The latest poll found Schulz with 22% support compared to her chief rival, Del. Dan Cox, with 25%. The two are within the margin of error, making the race a statistical tie. And 44% of Republican voters who were polled were undecided. Cox has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, and the Goucher College Poll found Trump was more popular with Maryland Republicans than Hogan.
Schulz’s ties with Hogan run deep. She was part of a group of people advising Hogan when he formed his Change Maryland political group in 2010, which in turn led to his successful gubernatorial campaigns. Her campaign team — which includes Hogan veterans — is even working out of the same office suite in Annapolis that Hogan’s campaign used when he scored his first gubernatorial victory in 2014.
In her campaign, Schulz is promising to carry forward many of Hogan’s priorities, from pushing pro-business policies to advocating for tax breaks. Schulz, like Hogan, wants stricter punishments for certain criminal offenders and repeats the slogan: “We will treat criminals like criminals and police officers like heroes.”
Schulz’s campaign themes hit on issues that are important to Republican voters, according to the new poll. A majority of Republican voters who were polled said their major concerns include inflation (90%), the cost of gas (90%) and crime (83%).
Schulz also brings an uncommon biography; she had children early, returned to college in her 30s and then launched a political career that involved leading two state agencies. If elected, she would be the first woman to serve as governor, as all 30 governors of Maryland have been white men.
“When we decided we had to put together the brightest, smartest, most hard-working people we could find to actually take over the government and change Maryland for the better, Kelly was one of the first people that I thought of,” Hogan told a crowd at an Annapolis hotel earlier this year as he announced his official endorsement of the Schulz campaign.
“There is only one candidate who has the experience, the ability and the desire to keep moving Maryland forward, to keep changing Maryland for the better, who can get the job done and continue the legacy, and that is the young woman standing next to me,” Hogan said to cheers.
Schulz wants to build on some of Hogan’s successes, such as tax breaks for retirees. And she wants to continue fighting for other priorities that Hogan hasn’t been able to get through the Democratic-led legislature, including tougher penalties for certain violent crimes.
Rather than make Maryland’s already-strict gun ownership laws more strict, Schulz said she wants existing laws enforced better. “If we continue to prosecute those that are actually committing [crimes] and breaking the laws, then I think we’ll be in a better place,” she said.
She’s drafted a “parental bill of rights” that capitalizes on conservative parents’ sentiments that public schools are biased against their values. Schulz promises to “keep partisan politics out of the classroom,” post classroom lessons online, expand the use of police officers in schools, make it easier to open public charter schools, and spend more tax dollars on private school scholarships.
Some of those education policies are geared toward “being able to make sure that there is clear competition, so that parents have a way to get their children out of failing schools,” Schulz said.
Schulz briefly considered being in a different position altogether at this point in her life. Looking toward the end of the Hogan administration, she could have gone back into the private business world. But she decided she had more to give.
“We have come so far in this state,” Schulz said in an interview. “I have been a part of some major changes that we’ve been able to accomplish. And it’s not time for me to leave public service.”
Schulz has faced scrutiny for some of her actions as a politician and cabinet secretary.
Schulz’s main rival, Cox, has painted her as a carbon copy of Hogan, who he alleges has abandoned Republican ideals of liberty and freedom.
“Hogan turned on his machine for her,” Cox said in an interview. “And I think there’s corruption in that whole machine.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have questioned Schulz’s statements that she would not alter Maryland’s abortion laws, noting that when Schulz was a state delegate she co-sponsored legislation that would confer “personhood” status on fetuses, essentially outlawing abortion if it had passed.
Schulz said she’s “personally pro-life” but wouldn’t seek to change abortion laws, acknowledging that the state’s voters overwhelmingly support access to abortion care.
The difference in position, Schulz said, comes down to who she’s representing. What her Frederick County constituents wanted is different from what Marylanders overall want.
“When I was in Frederick County, I represented a small portion of the Frederick County district, I represented them,” she said. “Now going to be Maryland governor, there are state laws that Maryland governors will uphold because of where they are.”
She reiterated that promise after last week’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Roe v. Wade case that ensured legal access to abortion nationwide. She said in a statement that “the issue is settled law in Maryland.”
“Despite fear-mongering from others, as governor, I’ll do nothing to change current law,” Schulz said in the statement.
Schulz also presided over the state Department of Labor for several years leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, when the state’s unemployment program buckled under an unprecedented number of claims and constantly changing rules from the federal government. Tens of thousands of out-of-work Marylanders went for weeks without benefits as problems were sorted out.
Schulz, who led the Department of Labor from 2014 through January 2019, maintains there was nothing that could have been done to prepare for the pandemic’s crushing unemployment caseload “other than having a crystal ball to know what was going to happen.”
Schulz said she feels “very strongly” about her leadership of the Department of Labor, including improving job training programs.
“There’s nobody in the nation, nobody in the world, that could have done anything better to prepare for an unknown pandemic,” Schulz said.
Schulz said her politics are influenced by her personal struggles.
She grew up in Michigan and left college at age 19 when she became pregnant. Schulz married, had another child and worked a series of jobs, including waiting tables and tending bar.
It wasn’t until Schulz was in her 30s that she returned to college, earning an associate’s degree at a community college in Rochester, New York. She moved to Frederick County for her then-husband’s job in 2003 and finished a bachelor’s degree in political science at Hood College in 2006, at age 36.
“Being a young mom and trying to make ends meet, it was really tough,” Schulz said. But it allows Schulz to speak with authority about issues of affordability.
Serving as a state delegate from 2011 until 2015, Schulz said said she drew on personal experience driving around teenagers when she spoke out against a gas tax increase. She felt the Democratic leaders were not in tune with the struggles of Marylanders.
Schulz recalled telling her colleagues at the time: “It’s really hard. Like, I can’t afford it. I’m sure your constituents in your district can’t afford it, either.”
With gas prices and taxes an issue again, Schulz regularly recalls her fight against the last gas tax increase, which came from a Democratic-led legislature with a Democrat as governor. Imagine how things would have turned out differently if there had been a Republican governor, Schulz suggests.
“Marylanders need to have checks and balances,” Schulz told a crowd gathered at a Howard County brewery on a warm spring evening.
As Schulz made her pitch to prospective voters, Sandi Nettina was among those listening in the crowd.
A nurse practitioner from West Friendship, Nettina was just starting to research candidates when she got an invite to the Women for Kelly meet-and-greet. She liked what she heard from Schulz, especially when it came to promoting safety and fighting crime.
“You’ve just got to boil it down to feeling safe,” Nettina said.
Schulz’s association with Hogan left a favorable impression, too.
“We’ve had a steady state the last eight years with Hogan, and I think she wants to do the same,” Nettina said.
Diana Waterman, a Schulz backer and former state Republican Party chair, told the crowd that Schulz is the best-positioned candidate to beat the Democratic nominee in November. Her statement is a reflection of the political reality in Maryland, in which Republicans must woo Democrats and independent voters in order to win statewide office.
Waterman didn’t name names, but it was clearly a shot at Cox. The Schulz campaign hasn’t viewed the other Republicans in the race, Robin Ficker and Joe Werner, as viable candidates.
“Any of those other people that are running in the Republican primary, if our state elects them as our nominee,” Waterman warned, “we have given it to the Democrats.”