When Republican Larry Hogan was elected governor of deep-blue Maryland, he envisioned himself playing “goalie”: pitching targeted populist initiatives but mostly trying to thwart a Democratic-majority legislature.
In his first term, he drew attention for initiatives that include starting school after Labor Day, cutting some fees and lowering tolls by about $3, building roads in rural areas, and pushing tax relief for some retirees. His bid for a second term — he would be the first Republican chief executive reelected in Maryland since 1954 — is built on continuing that pragmatic approach.
Hogan’s campaign website offers no sweeping new policy ideas. In an interview, he offered just one new initiative: to seek broader tax cuts beyond the “nibbling around the edges” he already secured.
“We don’t want to change very many things or make any U-turns or go in a different direction,” he said.
With polls showing that most Marylanders think the state is on the right path, the governor’s approach stands in marked contrast to the campaign of Democratic challenger Ben Jealous. Among other things, Jealous envisions a state that pioneers a new way to deliver health care, a 25 percent boost in annual education spending, a statewide $15 minimum wage, a new tax on the wealthy and a recreational marijuana industry — not to mention reducing the state’s prison population by about a third.
Their starkly different visions of Maryland — and its potential future — will be on display Monday during the gubernatorial contest’s lone televised debate.
Hogan, the popular incumbent, sees people happy with his effort to address “real problems” but still frustrated with traffic, neighboring states that don’t do enough to help restore the Chesapeake Bay and a high tax burden. “I want to go much further and provide much more tax relief for small businesses, for middle-class taxpayers and for retirees,” he said, before adding a pragmatic caveat: “We’ve got to find a way to pay for it, and I’ve got to get the legislature on board.”
Jealous, the former NAACP president who is far behind in the polls, sees working families as left behind by what he calls the governor’s “half-solutions” on criminal justice, the economy and education. He pitches a dramatic — and potentially pricey — overhaul of state government that he believes would create more equity and opportunity across the board.
“My vision is rooted in my understanding that we don’t have to crawl,” Jealous said in an interview. “We have an opportunity to leap forward.”
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College, said Hogan believes “that for the most part, Maryland doesn’t need a revolution, just some reforms.”
“Ben Jealous says Maryland should be a trailblazer and really reach for the sky,” Eberly continued. “It’s a vision of the state that suggests there are a lot of things that need to be fixed. . . . I don’t think you could argue that either one of them are right or wrong.”
Hogan and his allies bristle at the term “incremental.” He points to the construction of the Purple Line (a project planned by his predecessor); record money for schools (largely dictated by spending formulas); several billion dollars in road and bridge improvements (paid for by a gas tax he unsuccessfully tried to roll back); and a just-signed reinsurance plan that reversed double-digit percentage increases in health-care insurance costs (he also insists that a new $380 million fund created by a tax on insurers is not a new tax).
By his count, Hogan prevented more than $1 billion in spending proposed by Democrats and eliminated or reduced 250 fees, dropping, for example, the cost of an ID card for the homeless from $25 to $1 and making it free for veterans to visit state parks. He’s pitched an ambitious, $8 billion toll-road plan aimed at relieving congestion, and shepherded a generous incentive proposal in hopes of luring Amazon.com’s second headquarters.
Hogan also vetoed bills including voting rights for felons and a paid sick leave law, only to see the state legislature override him. Part of his vision for the next four years is to help Republicans win five state Senate seats held by Democrats so that the General Assembly no longer holds a veto-proof majority.
“The criticism of ‘we just do small ball’ is nonsense,” Hogan said. “I mean, I did stop bad things and play goalie. I was playing defense . . . [But] we had a much better offensive game than I even imagined.”
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) contrasted Hogan’s record of tackling Maryland problems — trying to expand charter schools, negotiating a compromise on a manufacturing tax credit and seeking targeted tax relief for retirees — with the national headline-grabbing ideas of Hogan’s Democratic predecessor, former governor Martin O’Malley, who successfully pushed for a tough gun-control law, repeal of the death penalty, legalizing same-sex marriage and granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.
“With many of his initiatives, we’d joke that this was a television commercial for his presidential run,” Kipke said, referring to O’Malley’s failed 2016 bid. “That’s just not the way it is with Larry Hogan. Not any one issue is a superstar issue, but collectively it’s a superstar record.”
Democratic critics contend Hogan has been at best a caretaker, willing to take credit for signing laws he did not help pass and offering few original ideas.
“He ran against the transportation [gas] tax, and then as governor he’s handing out dollars as though it were manna from heaven,” said state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery County), who is one of the five Democrats who lost to Jealous in the primary.
Madaleno, who worked as a legislative policy analyst before being elected to the General Assembly 12 years ago, described Jealous’s pitch to voters “big and bold.”
“Ben Jealous is certainly proposing very little you could describe as incremental,” Madaleno said. “Once he gets into office, it might turn into being incremental. You might say that you believe in a single-payer health-care plan, but you might need five steps to get there.”
Jealous supporters acknowledge that he might not have all the details for all of his big ideas worked out yet, but they say that’s besides the point.
“When I think of a leader, I think of someone who is bold, who is creative, who is not afraid to get out there and explain your position,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s County), a three-term legislator. “At least he has ideas.”
But more centrist legislators — including some Democrats — say Jealous’s vision is unrealistic.
“Simply just throwing out there that we’re going to reduce the prison population by 30 percent without any type of detail is completely meaningless and somewhat irresponsible,” said state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who as chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee helped shepherd broad criminal-justice reforms over the past two years.
Largely as a result of those changes, Maryland’s prison population is already declining at one of the fastest rates in the country, according to a May report from the Vera Institute of Justice.
“Either he doesn’t know what’s going on in the state, or he’s ignoring what’s going on in the state,” Zirkin said of Jealous. “Either way, it’s not a good way to run for governor.”
Jealous dismissed those concerns, noting Zirkin has accepted campaign donations from the cash bail industry. “It’s not surprising that I have different views on mass incarceration than politicians who take lots of money from the bail lobby,” he said. “People get into power, and they develop relationships with rich special interests, and it clouds their view.”
On the campaign trail, Jealous offers those zingers in speeches, critiquing Maryland’s current leaders for timidly pushing Democratic ideas. Hogan spends much of his time glad-handing and posing for photos, telling voters he’s focused on “common-sense” ideas.
Although voters have a distinct choice ahead of them, they may not have a clear sense of the alternative Jealous is offering, said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College. That’s because the Democrat has vastly fewer resources than the incumbent governor. While Hogan and his allies have put more than $2 million behind statewide television advertising since the June 26 primary, Jealous and his supporters launched their modest first media buys in the Baltimore market earlier this month.
Monday’s debate, which will air at 7 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, offers Jealous his first general-election shot at a statewide audience to articulate his vision, and for Hogan to display his.
“It’s been hard to know what Jealous’s message is because I haven’t seen much from him on the airwaves,” Deckman said.