Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s decisions to kill an expensive light-rail project in Baltimore and reduce funding for schools have stirred tension with the city’s political leaders, who are questioning his commitment to addressing the struggling residents’ needs.
Hogan, a white, Republican businessman and first-time officeholder, campaigned last year in Baltimore as a common-man candidate who could deliver economic growth and job opportunities better than his rival, then-lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown (D), who is black.
He won about 22 percent of the vote in the predominantly African American, strongly Democratic city, compared with 16 percent captured by former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2010, when he ran against incumbent Martin O’Malley (D).
Hogan was a visible presence in Baltimore after riots erupted there in late April following the death of Freddie Gray, who was seriously injured while in police custody. The governor spent more than 15 hours a day in the city at times, meeting with residents and community leaders during a state of emergency, and even shooting hoops with locals.
But Hogan risks losing ground in Baltimore because of two actions that he says reflect his focus on fiscal restraint: his rejection last month of the Red Line light-rail project — even as he approved a similarly expensive project in the Washington suburbs — and his decision in May to withhold $68 million in aid for high-cost school districts, including $11 million for Baltimore.
“Although the governor has promised to support economic growth in Baltimore, he cancelled a project that would have expanded economic development, created thousands of jobs, increased access to thousands more, and offered residents better health care, child care, and educational opportunities,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) said in a statement after the Red Line announcement.
Hogan, who previously sniped at Rawlings-Blake about her response to the April unrest, responded to the Red Line criticism on Facebook, saying that the mayor was insisting that “the only way to go is to waste another $3 billion in taxpayer dollars to build another light rail to nowhere that accomplishes nothing.”
He has called the project a “wasteful boondoggle” and said the state would work with leaders in Baltimore to consider other transportation options.
John T. Willis, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore, said Hogan is unlikely to increase or even maintain his support in the city without some kind of policy decision that residents view as directly beneficial to them.
“There’s no tangible project that the governor has initiated in his first five months that contributed to economic growth in the city,” Willis said. “That’s more important than shaking hands with people, and it’s why I think the transportation decision is really a potential problem.”
Donald F. Norris, director of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said Hogan could move past the Red Line issue by taking broad steps — perhaps including a request for federal help — to address the city’s many problems: widespread poverty, a lack of jobs and high crime rates that have grown even worse since the riots.
“If you did a public-opinion poll about what people are concerned about in Baltimore today, I think the Red Line would rank about 20th,” Norris said, adding that political elites and business leaders probably care most about the project.
“The problems in Baltimore are massive and long-term,” Norris said. “Absent a very large federal role, which we have not seen in many years, no governor or mayor can do that alone.”
Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore) said Hogan “doesn’t have a vision” for the city.
He called the governor’s decision to withhold some schools funding in order to inject more money into the state’s public-employee pension system “harmful to the city’s efforts to bring children out of the cycle of dropping out of school or dropping into the criminal justice system.”
Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., the Hogan administration’s liaison to Baltimore, pointed to several ways the governor has tried to help the city in recent months, including $3.3 million in state funding to provide youth summer-job opportunities.
Mitchell said Hogan is trying to increase the number of charter schools in Baltimore, and that he helped secure a deal to bring the world’s largest container-shipping line, Denmark-based Maersk, back to the city’s port after it had moved most of its business to rival locations such as New York and Norfolk, Va.
At the same time, Hogan and his aides say Baltimore must take the lead in dealing with its problems. Mitchell, a longtime Baltimore resident who served as a Democrat on the Baltimore City Council and in the House of Delegates, said the governor isn’t looking to take over the city and dictate solutions.
“It’s a partnership,” Mitchell said. “The city has its own government and its own mayor, and the governor has expressed that he wants to be a partner.”
Howard Libit, director of strategic planning and policy for the mayor’s office, agreed that cooperation is essential.
Rawlings-Blake, he said, has wanted to build a relationship with Hogan similar to the one forged by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) when Booker was mayor of Newark. (Christie, who like Hogan is the Republican governor of a strongly Democratic state, has become a close friend and political mentor of the Maryland governor.)
When Booker was mayor, he and Christie “came up with bold and innovative ideas together,” Libit said. “Although they may not have been of same political party, they found ways to invest in that city’s future.”