In the halls of the Prince George's County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, those who monitor the political winds have noticed that a change has come over County Executive Lawrence Hogan.
He made his political reputation as an alley fighter with a finely honed instinct for the jugular, but now he has become subdued, willing to avoid some fights and even eager to demonstrate what is apparently a new-found restraint.
Larry Hogan, it appears has mellowed, and no one knows quite what to make of it. Hogan himself denies any change: "I'm spending more time on less controversial things, like economic development, that's all." But in the last few weeks, he has taken a distinctly different approach as he pursues the affairs of county government.
A case in point is his refusal to blast three County Council members who mailed political letters at county expense; in the past he would have been swift and public with cutting denunciations.
In another instance, he declined to take a verbal shot at a judge who temporarily overturned his ban on abortions in county hospitals; in the past Hogan has suggested that judges who crossed him were political pawns.
While explanations of this new Hogan persona vary according to political perspective, they all cross at one crucial point -- having this week passed his second anniversary in office, Hogan is now focusing on 1982, when he must run for reelection or, more likely, run for higher state office. Controversy, while an effective tool for him as a challenger, will not help Larry Hogan now that he is in office.
"He's finally just learning how to pick his fights. He's trying to be more of a statesman," said his press secretary, Stephanie Bolick, recently. "I think everybody, including Larry, got a little sick of the controversy."
No wonder. After two years in office, Hogan has been in the midst of more controversy and overseen more tumultuous events than most top elected officials see in an entire four-year term. Prince George's went through an angry county workers' strike, a jail riot and a court decision to take over the penal system in one two-week period.The county has been forced to slash jobs and programs in order to accommodate a tax freeze approved by voters at the time of Hogan's 1978 election.
Despite the swirl of events, as he passes the halfway mark of his term, Hogan says he believes his administration has made major strides in resolving fiscal and social problems in the county that had stymied his predecessors. He repeatedly mentions four major areas of achievement during his term: streamlining the county government and cutting taxes, improving housing and rundown community areas, increasing economic development in the county and obtaining continued state funding for Metro costs.
Some of Hogan's claims -- such as the tremendous tax cut he has handed county property owners over the last years -- hold up under scrutiny. In other cases, displaying an uncanny knack for self-promotion that has become his trademark, he has unabashedly taken credit for successful developments that through fortuitous timing simply culminated during his tenure.And in other instances, Hogan has boasted of accomplishments that very few outside his inner political circle would attribute to him.
In all these cases, Hogan has proved himself perhaps the most adept user of the press release and press conference in the county, a skill that politicians with less finely tuned public relations instincts find annoying. He is frequently first to jump on a politically popular issue -- for reasons of conscience, not politics, he maintains -- and if others have been there before him, he may simply let that slip by unnoticed.
Consider the Palmer Park Center, one of the accomplishments that Hogan and his aides attribute to this administration. In October 1979, Hogan ventured to the site of the boarded-up, unseemly Palmer Park Shopping Center in the heart of the county's black community, to declare to the assembled mayors and press corps that the decay would be transformed by his administration into a modern governmental and commercial complex, including a boxing gymnasium for hometown star Sugar Ray Leonard.
Although Hogan pointed to the proposal as an example of his inventiveness and dedication, there are other people who might have wondered about his self-proclaimed success. The idea for the center, although without the gym, had in fact been pursued by the previous administration, which had purchased the land and was in the process of developing final architectural plans when they were swept out of office by the election.
None of this was mentioned on the chilly day in 1979 when Hogan promised to have the center operational within a year, a promise that has yet to be realized.
Another example that demonstrated Hogan's ability to align himself with popular political issues when others might be more reluctant was his handling last year of the county's fiscal year 1981 budget that took effect July 1.
From the beginning of the budget process last year, Hogan's strategy was to cut property taxes without harming services by reducing the amount of money the county collected from property owners, and he was determined to cut property taxes even more than the tax-limiting TRIM law required.
In order to do that, the county needed to get more money from the state government, which at that time had a ballooning surplus. Hogan ventured to the Statehouse and, abandoning the hostile relationships of his first year in office, pleaded with legislators and the governor to give Prince George's more money from the surplus. He spoke ominously of disaster for the county schools. Metro operations and county services. In the end, Hogan had very little to do with the state's decision to give Prince George's about $14 million more aid than in the past, but as a result of that decision, he was able to pass on to county property owners, and take credit for, the biggest tax break in Prince George's history.
What irked many Democratic legislators, who gathered the votes needed to ensure increased state aid, was that Hogan, while asking for a large dose of generosity from the state, also took the opportunity to testify at a well-publicized state hearing on a state tax freeze. As the newspaper reporters scribbled and television cameras rolled, Hogan pronounced his approval of the state LIMIT proposal, saying state residents were overtaxed.
"That took a lot of gall," said state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller at the time. "There he was asking for more state money to bail him out and make him look good with a tax cut, and at the same time he was speaking in favor of LIMIT because it would get him in the newspapers."
Said one Hogan ally when questioned about Hogan's stance on LIMIT and other such astute political footwork, "Larry's a pragmatist and basically he doesn't want to come down on the wrong side of an issue, either politically or morally."
There are other examples of similar politically astute behavior -- his tough stance with the striking country workers, his decision to avoid similar tensions with the country's powerful police union and his decision to ban abortions at county hospitals. And there are also areas in which Hogan has pulled off what even his most vigorous critics concede are significant coups.
Hogan's handling of the country's nearly half-billion-dollar budget serves as perhaps the best example. A conservative Republican who was elected on a wave of antigovernment, antitax sentiment, Hogan has gone at budget cutting with a vengeance. He has carved away what he says was fat in government -- eliminating 1,855 jobs and curtailing some services, among them mental health programs; school system, park and recreation offerings; and county library services.
While Hogan boasts about having kept budget increases to a few percentage points, he tends to softpedal any discussion of his widely touted campaign pledge to actually cut the county budget. At the time of his December 1978 inaugural, Hogan, riding high on his overwhelming election margin against incumbent Winfield Kelly, said, "I'm going to cut the budget. That's my only promise." Now, when questioned about the pledge that served him so effectively in the 1978 campaign, he responds with a voice that rises in annoyance that his questioner should take a campaign promise so literally two years later.
The pledge, he argues, is no longer valid in these days of high inflation rates, and therefore he should not be expected to put it into effect. Nor, he says, should anyone expect him to put into effect a study he waved about during the campaign that allegedly showed how $43 million could have been sliced from the county budget. Hogan refused at the time to reveal the contents of the study, which he used as an indictment of the previous administration. Shortly after the election, it was quietly and unceremoniously discarded. "In the campaign," he said, "You mention ideas, you don't talk about how to implement them."
Along with the achievements, such as a crackdown on substandard housing, another major change was brought about under the administration of this frequently moody 52-year-old country executive: a palpable sense of tension, mistrust and partisan hostility pervaded the county's halls of power. Much of that is simply a product of the 1978 election results. Hogan's sweeping victory took away the county Democratic Party's top leader, former county executive Kelly, and with him the last remnants of the previously onmipotent Democratic machine.
Hogan charges that the bunker mentality in Upper Marlboro is the fault of the Democrats, who are out to get him because he is the only elected Republican. He says he is simply trying to do what is best for the country and is not out to pick a fight. He would like, he says, to make good on his inaugural pledge to "put politics to sleep for three-and-a-half years."
To Hogan's critics among the Democrats and government officials, that is a curious assertion. Here is a man who within months of coming to power in December 1978 attacked nonpartisan county school board members as "propaganda artists;" accused one influential state senator of being a "liar" and intimated that he would have him arrested for housing code violations; and threatened in a fit of uncontrollable anger to "geld" the County Council chairman, Parris Glendening.
The confrontations that have encircled Hogan's administration, like so many bees around a hive, often have produced mixed results, with Hogan stalemated on major appointments, faced with a loss of some power and unable to speak with key legislators in the county. But in one sense they have been beneficial to the man in the midst of it all.
"The essential Larry Hogan is confrontation. It is his management style," said former County Council member Francis B. Francois. "Many people use it. I don't like it. Results have come from it, but I think they are results that could have come from much less bloodshed."
From his first days in politics, when as a young lawyer he railed against governmental excesses of the then-Prince George's Board of Commissioners, Hogan carefully has nurtured an image as one pugnacious Irishman.
The denunciations of the commissioners first brought Hogan a taste for publicity, and the gunslinger image has proved politically popular -- he is the only Republican who can win election in this Democratic stronghold. But it also has earned him the not-so-flattering reputation among his critics as a "demagogue," to which Hogan responds: "Baloney."
While Hogan tends to blame his adversaries on the "partisan" council and in the legislature, or the "unholy alliance of Democrats and developers" for his problems, even his friends concede that he seems to function best when controversy swirls around him.
Hogan's closest political friend, Gerard Holcomb, a county businessman, says, "It's important for him to see himself as the knight on a white horse."
Until the new Larry Hogan emerged on the scene a few months ago, Hogan's lack of discretion was particularly apparent in his dealings with the all-Democratic council. Hogan took every opportunity to go after them and their actions, and they responded in kind.
Immediately after the 1978 election, "he was shocked to learn that the two branches of government were coequal," said Hogan loyalist Raymond LaPlaca, who disagreed with Hogan's handling of the council. "But Larry's no dummy, and he's learned how to get things done. He no longer says, 'This is how it'll be done, no matter what.'" In the words of one Hogan supporter, Hogan approached his government position as if "he wasn't elected county executive, he was appointed king."
As a result, time and again the council voted against him. It rejected his first nominee for county chief of police, refused to approve his appointments to boards and commissions, and cut funding for his pet economic development programs.
White Hogan in public has complained bitterly about the council, in private he admits that his public relations instincts have worked to his advantage in battles with the council. "In my fights with the council, I come off the stateman and they come off the political hacks," he said recently.
Nonetheless, the new Larry Hogan has begun to abandon the path of confrontation with the council -- as he did earlier with the legislature -- as the 1982 elections move closer. Just days ago, for instance, he made a tentative peace with his most vocal critic, council Chairman Parris Glendening, the man he threatened to castrate more than a year ago.
As Hogan looks toward 1982, he is most interested in making a run for the governor's seat that eluded him in 1974. Next month, pollsters for the Larry Hogan Committee will take a poll to determine whether Gov. Harry Hughes is vulnerable enough among state voters for Hogan to enter the race for the governor's office.
If the poll is not that encouraging and if Hughes does not begin to look unpopular in the coming months when Hogan feels he must set his political path, he will consider a 1982 challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a more vulnerable incumbent. That challenge, however, is more likely to entail a serious Republican primary race and Hogan, whose political career has been based on Democratic votes, never has been a party favorite. If both of these options fall through, Hogan says he will run for reelection, which he feels would be as sure a bet as one can get in politics. "I could wait until the last minute, I think [to run for reelection]," he says. "You can never tell, though, things could change."