BALTIMORE — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) stood Wednesday morning at the foul line of an outdoor basketball court in Sandtown, the blighted neighborhood that was home to Freddie Gray. Hogan shot, missed and shot again. The ball hit the rim.
“Try again, Governor!” shouted Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP.
Another miss. “This is for the news: Governor sucks,” a chuckling Hogan said.
It was one of the few light moments in the past 48 hours for Hogan, who signed an executive order Monday declaring a state of emergency and deployed 2,000 National Guard troops to quell violence that erupted just hours after the funeral for Gray, who died a week after sustaining injuries while in police custody.
The unrest has catapulted Hogan, a political novice, into a national media spotlight. How the former real estate executive goes about addressing it, pundits say, could shape not only the rest of his first term, but also his political future.
“The stakes for this new and relatively untested governor are incredibly high,” said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist who has worked for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and the Congressional Black Caucus. “He may not face something this big for the rest of his first term. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
Hogan was little-known outside Maryland political circles before his upset victory in November. He has toggled between empathy and bravado in the days since Gray’s death, issuing heartfelt statements of sympathy and grief but also declaring firmly that street violence will not be tolerated.
In nationally televised remarks, he implied more than once that Mayor Stephanie
Rawlings-Blake (D) should have asked him sooner to implement the state of emergency. But he has also appeared with Rawlings-Blake several times on Baltimore streets and has praised her efforts to bring calm to the city.
“When this is over, we can go back and Monday-morning quarterback what happened,” Hogan said Wednesday. “Once we got engaged Monday night, once we got here, everyone stopped. There was no violence.”
Hogan moved himself and much of his staff from the State House in Annapolis to state offices in Baltimore starting Tuesday morning. He spent the day shuttling between those offices, the state emergency agency headquarters in Reisterstown and various public appearances, returning to the governor’s mansion about 2 a.m. Wednesday. He was back in Baltimore a few hours later.
Moving his base of operation to Baltimore “showed that the governor was going to bring this under his direct control — that he wasn’t going to delegate, that he was going to be hands-on,” said Russ Schriefer, a Republican political consultant who worked for Hogan’s campaign last year.
James Shalleck, a Montgomery County Republican who lost the 2014 county executive’s race to incumbent Isiah Leggett (D), said it was important for Hogan to demonstrate his concern for Baltimore, one of just four jurisdictions in the state — along with Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles counties — that voted for his Democratic opponent in November.
“He’s showing the people of Baltimore, that even thought they weren’t supportive of him in the election,that he’s standing side by side with the mayor,” said Shalleck, who was an assistant district attorney in the Bronx when it burned during riots in 1977.
Democrats, including state Sen. Joanne C. Benson (Prince George’s), bristled at Hogan’s suggestion that Rawlings-Blake should have acted earlier, saying his comments that he was waiting to hear from her rang false.
“When you’re at the top, you don’t wait for someone to ask for help,” said Benson, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland. “When you’re the chief officer for the state of Maryland and something comes down the pike, you have a responsibility to step up to the plate right away.”
But Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore) said she thought Hogan “did a great job,” especially in walking the streets and meeting with faith leaders and residents. “It gave him an opportunity to see some parts of the city we were already concerned about,” she said.
Thornell, the Democratic strategist, agreed. “His tiff with the mayor was unfortunate, but he got it together,” Thornell said. “The question for him is . . . What course of action is he going to take to address these legitimate concerns? . . . Hopefully, he doesn’t forget about them when the news trucks leave.”
Hogan, who lives in Anne Arundel County, grew up in Prince George’s County and frequently cited his roots there in courting black voters during his campaign. In a direct appeal for African American votes that is relatively unusual for Republican candidates, Hogan told black Marylanders that he would do more to improve their lives than Democrats had done under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Since taking office, Hogan has hired an African American Democrat from Baltimore, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., to serve as a top aide. He introduced a charter school bill that he said would increase educational opportunities for residents who live far from high-performing public schools. After a meeting with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, Hogan announced his support for the Maryland Second Chance Act, a bill that will allow Marylanders to have some nonviolent criminal offenses hidden from their public records, making it easier for them to get jobs.
During the campaign, as he was gaining ground on Democratic nominee Anthony G. Brown, Hogan hosted a Labor Day weekend picnic in Baltimore and visited residents in a blighted neighborhood.
“The response we got was: ‘No one ever comes to visit us. We’ve never seen any politician here,’ ” Hogan said at the time. “What I heard over and over from them was jobs and taxes. . . . Our same message that resonates in the suburbs and in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore was reaching these folks in the toughest part of inner-city Baltimore.”
In the final days of the campaign, Hogan’s team released a television ad featuring an African American woman who said she had never voted for a Republican. “What makes things crazy is when you keep voting in the same party and there is no change,” the woman said. “Actually, they call it insanity.”
On Wednesday, Hogan’s deputy made a similar argument at the NAACP offices in Sandtown, which he visited several hours after Hogan.
To combat poverty and unemployment, “we’ve got to fight the status quo. Larry and I fought the status quo to get here, so we’re willing to do it,” said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), an African American who says he switched to the Republican Party years ago after growing disenchanted with the Democratic Party.
He recalled telling a woman who complained about vacant houses during the campaign that “ ‘nothing’s going to change if you keep voting for the same folks.’ Because they don’t have to change if you vote for them. You’re basically telling them everything is fine.”
Touring Sandtown on Wednesday with Hill-Aston, Hogan talked about both short- and long-term needs of the community. He told Hill-Aston to let him know how the state could assist her organization in its work.
Neighborhood resident Candace Tisdale, 25, was dismissive of the visit, saying she didn’t see how it would lead to police officers treating African Americans with respect.
“When the camera is turned off, then what?” Tisdale said. “No offense to him or her or whoever it is. Things won’t change. I swear I hope I’m wrong.”
Rachel Weiner in Baltimore and Jenna Johnson, Paul Schwartzman and Bill Turque in Washington contributed to this report.