The accusations from Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland were pointed and jarring: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was demonstrating racial bias by delaying construction projects at two historically black colleges while moving forward with plans to build a new Baltimore city jail.
Within hours, the first-term governor announced he would withdraw the jail funding and work with lawmakers on putting the money toward higher-education projects.
It was the latest example of Hogan’s ability to undermine the strategy of his Democratic rivals, who after losing the governor’s mansion in 2014 are searching for ways to control the agenda in Annapolis and prevent Hogan from winning a second term.
Democrats have said their blueprint for defeating Hogan involves boosting voter turnout in the state, which heavily favors their party in terms of registration, and allowing Hogan to sink himself with conservative policies. So far, with Hogan’s approval ratings soaring above 60 percent in recent polls, neither approach appears to be showing much success.
Hogan, a former businessman now in his second year as governor, has pushed a moderate agenda, leaving critics with few opportunities to attack his policies.
Opponents once warned that Hogan would give tax breaks to wealthy business owners while rolling back funding for people in need. But his proposals this year included plans to expand tax credits for the elderly and working poor. Critics also described his push to reduce automatic spending increases as code for education cuts — until Hogan made clear that his proposal would protect school-funding formulas from changes.
The Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature often find themselves attacking the governor’s style, saying he rarely collaborates and that he steals credit for their legislative accomplishments.
“Democrats want that governorship back,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of Washington College’s political science department. “I think they’re stymied because he’s doing well, and the public is responding well to him as governor.”
Hogan preaches bipartisanship but seems to relish opportunities to joust with his Democratic rivals, frequently mocking and criticizing them in interviews and on social media. During a radio show last week, the governor compared legislators who oppose his initiatives to irresponsible kids on spring break.
“They come here for a few weeks, they start breaking up the furniture and throwing beer bottles off the balcony,” Hogan said. “Luckily, in a few weeks, they’re going to go home, and we get to go back to running the state and making progress.”
Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) responded on the Senate floor later that day, noting that lawmakers spend hours debating bills and listening to often emotional testimony at committee hearings.
“If the governor doesn’t know what we’re doing, he should come down and watch a little while,” Zirkin said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said: “There’s been very little substantive communication on issues people believe are problems. . . . It seems like most of the attention is focused on the political agenda rather than the governing agenda.”
Such back-and-forth most likely will have limited effect on voter perceptions during the 2018 election, several analysts said.
“When Democrats take shots that aren’t substantive, I don’t think it’s effective at this point,” said Richard Vatz, an expert on political rhetoric at Towson University. “I think people want to give the governor a chance, to see how his style works.”
At the same time, if either side becomes defined by petty squabbles, it could be politically damaging, analysts said. They cited the case of Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who developed a rancorous relationship with lawmakers, failed to push through several of his major initiatives and lasted only one term.
“Both sides are going to talk about slights, because if things go wrong, that’s part of the positioning to tell the story of how it happened,” said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But those marks disappear if the session appears to be a success for either side. It’s a matter of putting them in the bank in case you need them in the future.”
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said Democratic leaders are “thin-skinned” about the governor’s use of social media.
“This governor is consistent, he goes to the people,” Kipke said. “He knows who his boss is, it’s not the legislature. When the General Assembly is going in the wrong direction, he educates the voters of the state.”
So far in the 2016 legislative session, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) and Busch have rallied lawmakers to overturn all six of Hogan’s 2015 vetoes, reminding the governor of the limits of his power.
Democrats have also introduced at least 15 bills that would diminish Hogan’s influence and authority on issues such as appointing the state school superintendent, granting parole to inmates serving life sentences and determining which transportation projects deserve state funding.
One of the measures would expand the legislature’s authority by allowing the General Assembly to add or increase spending in the governor’s budget. Currently, Maryland is one of the few states that bars such changes.
Under another Democratic measure, the General Assembly would have to approve appointments of the state schools superintendent and the University System of Maryland chancellor. Currently, boards appointed by the governor have sole discretion over those decisions. Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer called the bill, which is expected to be voted on in the Senate this week, “a flawed and poorly considered piece of legislation that would endanger the very nature of the state’s educational system.”
Even on issues with broad agreement, Hogan tends to exclude Democrats from policymaking, often enacting changes through executive orders. In one such instance, he launched a program to reward public high school students who graduate early with college scholarships worth up to $6,000.
“Strategically, it’s smart for him to do, but he should be a little more collaborative if he wants to foster goodwill,” Deckman said of the governor’s solo approach.
Democrats and black leaders were outraged when Hogan did not include funding in his initial budget for a hospital in Prince George’s County and for promised demolition of blighted buildings in Baltimore. The governor eventually funded both projects — making the announcements himself, without alerting the Democrats ahead of time or attempting to bring them on board.
“It’s clear they forced his hand,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College. “He can take credit for it. He’ll get the press conference. . . . But they have found an effective way to get him to do things.”
Hogan’s ability to claim the spotlight is magnified, Eberly said, because he and the legislative majority hail from different parties. “He has the bully pulpit and has a much easier time controlling the narrative.”
Hogan opened this year’s legislative session by telling lawmakers that he is just a phone call away. But when Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery) tried to call his office to discuss a bill, she was told she needed to fill out a form.
King, describing the incident, said she was appalled. Hogan aides said an employee inadvertently referred the senator to the process used for some members of the public. But the incident, many believed, spoke to the broader relationship between Hogan and the Democrats.
Miller has blamed Hogan’s perceived missteps, including not talking to lawmakers before making significant announcements, on being a political novice.
“You’ve got to remember he hasn’t held public office before,” Miller said. “The governor needs to work on his communication skills with all the members of the Senate and members of the House. All of us read about these things in the newspaper.”
Hogan’s staff disputes any notion of a communication problem, noting that the governor met with Miller a handful of times this year and frequently talks with him by phone.
“The governor is here to get things done in the best way and the most cost-effective way possible,” Mayer said. “Anyone who is willing to work with him, he’ll work with them. He doesn’t care if the ideas come from Democrats or Republicans.”
In the end, Morrill said, “no one is going to remember the machinations” of a particular funding dispute or policy proposal.
“That’s just how the sausage is made. If the sausage tastes good, everyone is happy,” he said. “If not, it looks like it’s because you’re not willing to work with the other guys, and that can come back to haunt you.”