The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gov. Larry Hogan’s ‘regular guy’ approach smooths over partisan edges

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan enters the House chamber before his 2017 State of the State address in Annapolis. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A billionaire was asking Gov. Larry Hogan about adjusting to life in public office, so Hogan talked about walking around the governor’s mansion in his underwear.

Months after his unexpected victory, Hogan left his bedroom, headed for coffee, only to find a group of tourists in the stately foyer, looking up at him in his boxer shorts.

“Quickly, I learned there’s no privacy,” Hogan chuckled this summer during a televised appearance before the Economic Club of Washington.

The governor regaled the elite crowd as if they were buddies on bar stools: talking about the time he did a news conference about his cancer diagnosis while on hefty painkillers — “It was like truth serum!” — and that he hopes his thinning hair and weight gain makes him look fierce, “like Bruce Willis.”

This jocular everyman persona has helped catapult his popularity in a blue state few thought he could win four years ago. It’s an image Hogan, the son of a congressman, has cultivated and maintained despite his wealth, lifelong political ambitions, and the gobs of national attention he’s received as a different type of GOP politician in the era of President Trump.

A master of pragmatism who thrives on retail politics, Hogan, 62, has mostly governed from the middle, avoiding controversy, embracing Democratic initiatives and preaching the value of working across the aisle.

The power of his personality has masked some of his sharper edges. And his persistent claim that he transcends divisions has overshadowed his own partisan moments — including vetoes of socially liberal policies and his willingness to seek revenge on those who vote to override them.

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Hogan’s critics say the vetoes suggest the governor could become more conservative if he wins a second term, especially if Republicans succeed in flipping enough seats to crack the veto-proof majority Democrats have held in Annapolis for nearly 50 years.

But Hogan dismisses that idea with a laugh and a scoff, pointing to polls that suggest most people think the state is headed in the right direction.

“Am I going to transform into a different person? No,” Hogan said. “Why would I change? I mean, look, people seem to be happy, right?”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Democratic nominee Ben Jealous sparred over the state’s economy and crime during their first and only debate on Sept. 25. (Video: MPTV)

A savvy operator

As the governor handed out bear hugs recently at the Darlington Apple Festival in Harford County, a woman heaped praise on him for a new law giving some residents tuition-free community college.

Hogan welcomed her thanks, posed for a photo with her grandson and made no mention that he had nothing to do with the legislation until he decided to sign it. He did the same thing two years ago when a woman lauded him for restoring voting rights for felons on probation or parole — even though he had vetoed that bill and it only became law because Democrats overrode him.

“People underestimated his political skills, and I’ll plead guilty to that, too,” says state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the liberal Democrat who pushed the community college bill for two years.

“I think that’s his experience as a developer,” Pinsky said. “He only cares about the bottom line. He doesn’t care how you get there.”

Hogan is Maryland’s first governor in modern history to win the job without previously holding elected office. He leads challenger Ben Jealous (D) in polls by about 20 points, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland more than 2 to 1. The governor has insulated himself from anti-Trump backlash at time when pundits are predicting a “blue wave” elsewhere. H is job-approval ratings are among the highest on record in the state.

Ben Jealous: Can his civil rights legacy get him to the Maryland governor’s mansion?

While Maryland’s last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich, was often combative and ideological, Hogan carefully chooses his battles. In 2015, he proposed trimming rising Medicaid costs by eliminating free prenatal care for 1,400 low-income pregnant women, but he didn’t push the point when lawmakers howled.

Hogan will mock critics but then collaborate with Democrats — often on policies that poll well — and happily accepts full credit for everyone’s work. The governor has touted the state’s generous new parental leave policy, even though his administration objected to it. His campaign ads urge voters to approve what he dubbed “the Hogan lockbox,” a constitutional amendment preventing casino money from being siphoned away from K-12 education, which Democrats put on the ballot over the governor’s objection.

He shrugs off the criticism that he’s appropriating other people’s ideas.

“Well, it doesn’t become law unless I enact it,” he said of the parental leave bill. “Nobody said whose idea it was first, but it only became law because I made it one.”

In reality, 15 bills have become law in Maryland over the past four years despite Hogan’s veto. They offer a window into some of the governor’s strongest-held convictions.

He vetoed a paid sick-leave bill he said was onerous to small businesses; nixed a law that made it tougher for police to seize assets and not return them; and overturned a measure that called for more electricity to come from renewable sources, saying it would drive up residents’ power bills. Democratic lawmakers reversed him each time.

After the legislature overrode his veto of a bill curtailing the governor’s power to determine which schools get built, Hogan listed the 29 Democratic state senators who voted against him on Facebook and told his followers to “remember their names.”

This year, Hogan also targeted a Republican senator for retribution after the lawmaker voted with Democrats to overturn a veto of a bill that bans colleges from asking upfront about an applicant’s criminal history.

“He loves to talk a good game about getting along and working across the aisle, but he absolutely will not tolerate independent thought,” said state Sen. Steve Waugh (R-St. Mary’s), who found himself challenged in the June primary by a candidate Hogan endorsed and campaigned for. Waugh lost by 752 votes.

During the campaign, Hogan told Waugh’s constituents the senator was the only Republican who “voted to override my veto to allow violent criminals into our colleges without any background checks.”

“It was very mean-spirited,” Waugh said.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer declined to comment except to say Hogan “thought St. Mary’s needed better representation.”

'His own brand'

Hogan gets cranky when he is in the office for too long. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fish fry, a parade, a benefit or a conference; he demands to get out and work the crowd.

“Frankly, it’s the thing I love most about being governor,” Hogan says. “I’ve never stopped going out among people.”

Within 20 minutes of arriving at a Hagerstown campaign stop, he charmed a 10-year-old beauty queen, promised to return for the high school production of “Mamma Mia!,” hugged the crying mother of a heroin overdose victim and guffawed with Bill Proctor, a Democratic booster wearing a Hogan sticker.

Proctor, 64, said he can’t help himself.

“His policies aren’t radical. He’s easy to like from all directions,” Proctor said. “He has time for you. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Hogan uses his crowds as both a leadership strategy and a barometer of his success.

The reception he received working a 2014 Fourth of July parade in Dundalk, once a Democratic stronghold in Baltimore County, convinced him he was going to become governor, even though polls had him behind by double digits.

“No one else believed me,” Hogan says. “I was right about my gauge of the people.”

How Gov. Larry Hogan doubled his support among black voters

He made a point of being visible in 2015 after he sent the National Guard into Baltimore to help quell unrest prompted by the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man. Hogan played basketball in the neighborhood where Gray grew up, swept up debris alongside shopkeepers and — despite objections from his security detail — wandered West Baltimore with community leaders and ministers, asking young men to help him keep the peace.

“A big part of this is making people understand that you care about them, that you’re working for them,” Hogan says. “You can say I was walking the streets of Baltimore meeting people, and it was campaigning, or you can say I was reassuring people that things were going to be okay.”

The practical effect was both.

Hogan’s friend and political mentor, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), said the riots — and Hogan’s battle with cancer a few months later — helped cement his reputation as an approachable, relatable leader.

“Now he’s his own brand, which politicians in Maryland are going to be measured against in the future,” Christie said. “It’s pretty extraordinary for someone who has never held political office before.”

Hogan was 24 when he launched his first political campaign, trying to unseat a Democratic congressman in a district anchored by Prince George’s County. In his words, he “got smoked.”

A second early campaign also failed, and Hogan took his father’s advice to focus on something else for a while. He went into commercial real estate, and after a bankruptcy in 1994, the Hogan Cos. has earned him millions.

But Hogan was never far from politics. He worked for Ehrlich and became an outspoken opponent of tax and fee increases under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). He says he models himself after his father, Larry Hogan Sr., who was the first GOP member of the House Judiciary Committee to vote to impeach President Richard M. Nixon and, later, the last Republican county executive elected in Prince George’s.

Obituary: Former congressman Lawrence Hogan Sr.

Hogan was 12 when his father was first elected to Congress, and he says it shaped how he approached his first stint in public office nearly five decades later.

“I saw all these supposedly important people . . . And I was just like, ‘They’re not all that big a deal,” he says. “I’ve seen other people change when they get into a position like that, and I said, ‘that’s never going to happen to me.’ ”

Fighting through cancer

Less than a month before Election Day, Hogan canceled campaign events in Western Maryland to speak at the funeral of a Prince George’s County firefighter he had met just once, a 41-year-old father named Jesse McCullough, who worked in the station near Hogan’s childhood home.

Hogan had attended a benefit for McCullough in August, weeks before the firefighter died of colon cancer. On an autumn Saturday, the governor’s eulogy sent mourners reaching for tissues.

Each week, Hogan makes a few calls to cancer patients just to cheer them up. He says calls from strangers strengthened him when he was going through treatment for his own cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that was diagnosed five months into his term.

Three years later, Hogan’s battle with the disease remains a defining and potent element of his political biography.

“People respect that he was so public about it, that he did his job as much as he possibly could during it,” says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst who rates gubernatorial races for the Cook Political report.

She said Hogan became popular in part because of how he governed, but in part because the circumstances allowed voters to see him first as person, not a politician. It amplified what people already liked about him. “It’s really humanized him,” she said.

Hogan’s cancer advocacy: ‘I never expected to be in this position.’

Footage of Hogan undergoing chemotherapy — filmed by his staff — is now part of his campaign ads.

“I go to every cancer thing that I get a chance to, and I talk about it whenever anyone wants to,” Hogan says.

The extent of the goodwill Hogan has built with Maryland residents sometimes surprises his fellow Republicans, especially given the national tenor of politics.

“In this environment, people will scream at you,” said state Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick). “It’s really ugly out there.”

Hough said a pair of women recently asked him his party affiliation while was out campaigning. When he answered, one started to berate him — until he handed them a flier featuring a photo of him and Hogan.

“They said, ‘Oh, I like Governor Larry Hogan,’ ” Hough said. “I can’t totally explain it. There’s a secret sauce there that this guy has found. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen.”

On the campaign trail, Hogan basks in it and reiterates that he’s just like the people who vote for him. “I’m a regular guy,” Hogan says. “I just happen to be governor.”

So when a man at a Gaithersburg rally shouted “Four more years!” Hogan reached for one of his biggest crowd-pleasing lines.

“Did he say four more beers?”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.