Lawrence Hogan has had one fight after another with the County Council, the school board, the public unions and the state legislature during his 11 months as Prince George's county executive, but his love affair with the voters apparently is stronger than ever.
According to a countywide poll conducted for the teachers lobby recently, Hogan, the only Republican official in the county, is thought to be doing a good or very good job by 63 percent of the registered voters.He won office in 1978 with 58 percent of the vote.
The new poll stunned the county's Democratic politicians, many of whom said they assumed that Hogan's popularity had been slipping during his tumultuous tenure in Upper Marlboro. So concerned were the leaders of the long-dominant Democratic Party, in fact, that they gathered at state Del. Charles (Buzz) Ryan's home in Bowie last Sunday to discuss what could be done to turn back the popular sentiment toward Hogan and the Republicans.
"There was a real concern that we won't be able to win back the county executive's seat in 1982," said one Democrat who attended the Bowie summit. "The feeling was it was time to get the party back together again."
At the meeting, the attending Democrats, who included two state senators, several state delegates, members of the County Council, Democratic Central Committee and U.S. Rep. Gladys N. Spellman, agreed to set up a committee of the leadership of their various groups, not unlike the Democrats' old "Breakfast Club."
That informal club of leading county Democrats was formed by party power broker Peter O'Malley a decade ago and, over the course of the 1970s, was the forum at which appointments, candidate slates and all important political decisions were made. As the power of the Democrats grew over the years, the "Breakfast Club" became the symbol of what Hogan and others called a party machine.
At their session last Sunday, however, the Democrats decided that, by whatever name, they had better regroup. "While there were worries about being labeled a machine, most people felt that if we don't do something, we may lose it all," said one participant.
Added another Democrat: "It was recognized that whether the meetings were held at breakfast, lunch, dinner or cocktails, it would be known as the "Breakfast Club" all over again. But it was worth doing it even if we got hit in the newspapers."
The immediate goal of the committee was to organize the Democrats for the presidential election this year. But that effort was seen as a prelude to organizing the county for the 1982 state and local elections in order to maintain Democratic control.
The results of the poll, which canvassed 500 county residents, had many Democrats at the meeting worried that Hogan's coattails might bring a flood of Republicans to their solidly Democratic county.
They were somewhat reassured, however, by the seemingly contradictory finding that the County Council, with which Hogan has waged many a bitter war, was also rated highly by poll respondents.
In fact, the all-Democratic body did slightly better than Hogan, with 76 percent of those polled-stating it had done a good or very good job since its 11 members were elected with Hogan in November 1978. Twenty-four percent of those canvassed rated the council as poor or very poor.
Although the poll did not ask people specifically whether they support the county's tax-limiting TRIM charter amendment that was overwhelmingly enacted in the 1978 elections, the results show that most people in Prince George's would like the county to find sources other than property taxes to supporty county services. Nearly one-fourth of those polled said they would be willing to reduce some county services to keep taxes down.
The poll thus indicated some of the reasons Hogan has been able to maintain his popularity since coming into office. While other elected officials in the County Council and state legislature have publicly worried about TRIM and suggested that it be modified soon, Hogan has wholeheartedly supported it.
"People like what he's doing. It looks like he's defending the taxpayers," one Democrat said at the meeting last Sunday. "That's one of the reasons he'll fight with the school board and the council, yelling TRIM the whole time."
At the same time the widely publicized fights between Hogan and the County Council over appointments, development policies, and budgets have only added to Hogan's reputation as a politician who will not deal behind closed doors.
Instead of being stubborn and uncompromising, as some of his critics maintain, Hogan is frequently perceived as a tough defender of the little guy, the blue collar worker on whose support he has thrived.
"Hogan has been able to convert the fights into the appearance of partisan politics while he is trying to defend the county taxpayer," said one county Democrat. Added another: "He's always taken an adversary role, ever since he was a congressman. And people just love that."
Hogan was less surprised yesterday about the poll results than were his Democratic opponents. "I've never lost an election in Prince George's County," he said. "But you can expect that I would erode some now since I'm the guy they're all shooting at."